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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Oyster Bay's move to swat gadflies lands town in federal court

Oyster Bay's Town Hall.

Oyster Bay's Town Hall. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Long Island's never been short of gadflies.

You know, residents who excel at making their presence — and opinions — known at public meetings.

One woman, decades ago, attended almost every Town of Huntington meeting, where she would pull out a gavel and use it to accentuate — bam! — the importance — bam! — of essential points — bam! — as she spoke.

The trick, then, for municipal boards is to allow the public — gadflies and all — a voice, while maintaining a semblance of decorum.

Most boards seem content to let the public have its say, in just about any way the public wants to do so. For the most part, when meeting on noncontroversal topics, that means letting tensions rise with one speaker and fall as others step up for their turns.

But even when hearing rooms get hot and crowded, and things get ugly — as they can when Long Islanders really get their dander up — rarely are authorities called in.

And even more rarely does behavior during a meeting result in criminal charges.

All of which brings us to Oyster Bay, where an attempt to balance decorum with freedom of speech has landed the town in federal court. In a hearing last week, a judge asked, multiple times, what the sides in a dispute over the town's new decorum rules wanted to do to try and address the matter.

But first, a word about gadflies.

Although there are exceptions, many seem to have deep knowledge of how their municipality works (or doesn't work), and tend to be passionate about their views.

Local lore, for example, credits the woman and her trusty gavel in Huntington — who died years ago — for almost single-handedly stopping a planned expansion of a shopping center back in the day.

But what happens when an attempt to shoo away even the peskiest of gadflies turns into an attempt to swat them down?

That's the crux of the question vexing Oyster Bay.

In October, the town board codified its rules of decorum by passing a resolution requiring that speakers "observe the commonly accepted rules of courtesy, decorum, dignity and good taste and shall not use foul language, display unacceptable behavior or be disruptive of the proceedings."

So far, so good.

It goes on:

"Speakers may not make personal comments about public officials, town residents or others. Members of the public and Board members shall be allowed to state their positions in an atmosphere free of slander, threats of violence or the use of the Board meeting as a forum for politics … "

Use of a town board as a forum for politics? That's a tough one — since, for better or for worse, it's hard to find any politics-free gathering of a town board, village council or county legislative meeting across Long Island.

But let's move on:

"Any person making offensive insulting, threatening, insolent, slanderous or obscene remarks or gestures, or who becomes boisterous, or who makes threats against any person or against public order and security while in the Board Room, either while speaking at the podium or as a member of the audience, shall be forthwith removed at the direction of the presiding office[r]."

And here, critics say, is where the fly swatter really gets swinging:

"Any person removed from a public meeting at the direction of the presiding officer may be charged with disorderly conduct … "

Nassau County's district attorney, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Press Club of Long Island have raised concerns about the resolution because of free speech and other issues.

And last month, U.S. District Judge Gary R. Brown blocked the town from imposing its new rules, granting a temporary restraining order requested by resident Kevin McKenna, who, in 2018, was banned at one point from town board meetings.

McKenna's lawyer, Jonathan Clarke of Farmingdale, said in a Newsday interview last month that Brown had told town attorneys to rewrite the resolution or face a full hearing into whether it was constitutional.

Brown also scheduled a hearing, which was held via telephone last week.

It was brief.

At one point, Brown asked about the town board and whether it needed to take some action.

At another, McKenna's lawyer noted that there were issues on which the sides appeared unable to find common ground.

On Friday, Brian Nevin, a spokesman for Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino, said in a statement that Brown had "provided time for the Town to slightly alter verbiage while maintaining the law's same intent, which is to protect the freedom of speech for all attendees while maintaining a safe environment free of profanity, sexual gestures and unruly behavior."

Nevin continued: "The Town will certainly prevail against this lawsuit which wastes taxpayer money in a poor attempt to gain media attention while sidelining good government."

Brown, who last week extended the TRO, set another hearing for this week.

Meanwhile, he told the sides, keep working.

And he said that more than once.

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