“Government touches us all, from birth to death and everything in between. Open government laws are most important at the local level, where government touches people most directly,” said Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. This esteemed official will give a talk and answer questions on New York’s Freedom of Information Law and Open Meetings Law at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 9 at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center in Woodstock.
The Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) pertains to the public’s right to gain access to government records. The Open Meetings Law (OML) asserts the public’s right to attend meetings of public bodies. Freeman and other Committee staff give advice on principles of open government by telephone, email, written advisory opinions, and in classes conducted throughout the state. Since the enactment of FOIL in 1974 and OML in 1977, the Committee has made recommendations to the state government that has resulted in changes to the laws.
“We are objective,” said Freeman. “We’re not here to support the government. We’re here to do the right thing — which is sometimes, but not always, the same.”
Committee staff have written 25,000 opinions on questions of open government, many of which are available on their website. The service they offer is unique, said Freeman, explaining, “Every state in the country has an open records law and an open meetings law, but they are all somewhat different. But only a handful of states have offices like ours. If people have questions, there’s no one to call.” The Committee receives inquiries from out of state and outside the U.S. They often hear from emerging nations where people are interested in developing open government laws. There are 90 nations with such laws, and Freeman has made presentations in many countries, including Japan, China, Panama, Peru.
He gives about 80 talks a year, attracting a wide range of people. “We often get government officials, who like to be seen and want to know about their obligations under the law,” said Freeman. “We get interested members of the public, local gadflies, news media. I believe that when all sectors of a community are represented, everyone hears same the questions and answers at the same time. That helps to resolve problems and questions before they become disputes. In Woodstock, which has always been an active community, I guess there will be lots of people and lots of questions, and I will stay until there are no more questions.”
Each talk draws different queries, depending on the issues on the minds of local residents.
“I never prepare,” said Freeman. “I can talk about FOIL and open meetings till doomsday if people let me. I offer a basic introduction and talk about our website, which has great deal of information. Then I ask the crowd what to talk about first. We go over ground that’s really important to the community. Sometimes it involves the school board — Is it constantly discussing so-called personnel issues in private? What does the teachers’ contract say and what does it really mean? Sometimes it’s land use issues involving the environment. How long does a government agency get to respond to requests for information? Can we record open meetings?”
Given that a trustee from the board of the Woodstock Library invited Freeman to speak, questions will likely arise about the process by which the library annex project was initiated by the board and then set aside due to public outcry. Other topics might include how public money is spent, how to compare real estate values in property assessment grievances, how to predict impacts of proposed development in a community. “The laws we’re talking about provide tools,” said Freeman.
Opening the compliance door
When asked why open meetings law is sometimes ignored, Freeman pointed out that the cast of characters at the local government level is constantly changing. “Every year, I train any number of local government associations, the New York State School Boards Association, the Conference of Mayors. Often I ask at the beginning how many are here for first time. A third of the hands go up. One year to the next, we get new people who have a smattering of knowledge but don’t know as much as they need to know. People ask questions, and the answers are sometime embarrassing to them — which is good if the shoe fits. They might take another look at the law.”
Although the Committee has no judicial power, just by offering opinions, it enhances compliance with the law. If a reporter calls for a quote, the answer can have a significant effect when the reply goes into print. “It often opens the door to compliance,” Freeman noted. While he spoke to the Woodstock Times, he had three calls waiting from media ranging from the Glens Falls News to the website DNAinfo to New York City’s Daily News. “I always speak on the record, and I don’t care who I upset,” he declared. “I give what I believe to be the right answer under the law.”
Freeman graduated from New York University’s law school, started his career working for an upstate law firm, and “hated every minute of it.” In 1974, he took a job at a state agency. That year, FOIL was passed, along with measures for the creation of an office with no staff and no budget. Freeman was asked to get the office off the ground. “I said, ‘I know nothing about FOIL.’ They said, ‘No one else does either.’ I’ve had the same phone number for the whole time. My function is completely consistent with the idealism of the ‘60s. When I went to college, we sat around and talked about how we wanted to change the world. I found out making a dent is the most you can expect. But this work is based on democratic principles and idealism, consistent with those discussions of the late ‘60s. It’s a dream job for someone like me.”
Robert Freeman of the New York State Committee on Open Government will speak and answer questions about the New York State Freedom of Information Law and Open Meetings Law at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 9 at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center in Woodstock on Rock City Road. The public is invited, and admission is free. For information and resources on open government, see https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog.