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Freeman addresses open meeting questions

PENN YAN—Open meetings and Freedom of Information are two laws that are often referred to but that seem to produce some confusion in interpretation, even by groups that use the terms on a regular basis. On May 13, a relatively new local group, Yates Progressives, invited Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York Committee on Open Government, to speak in Yates County. The committee is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and the Open Meetings Law.
The committee brochure states FOIL governs rights of access to government records while the Open Meetings Law concerns the conduct of meetings of public bodies and the right to attend those meetings. The committee also administers the Personal Privacy Protection Law.
The program in the auditorium of the county office building was attended by 75 local residents and individuals involved in local government. Freeman began by telling the audience, “Ours is the smallest state agency that does anything. All day we give advice on what is legal and what is not. We give advice to anyone. Our only goal is to give the right answer under the law.” He said he is on his sixth governor, and “They leave me alone.” He said his office can be used to “solve problems before they become conflicts.” The advice is solid; courts agree with his office 90 percent of the time.
A term that does not appear in the law as related to executive sessions is personnel. In a response to a question from audience member Alice Hunt about executive sessions to discuss personnel matters, Freeman said, “Personnel. The word drives me crazy. No law says personnel. One goal is to explode the myth. I suggest the word be eliminated. As a general rule, everything is open unless someone could be hurt.”
He said the government can withhold information when it would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Freeman said, “Embarrassment is not grounds for either. The law is the law.” He said both laws are based on common sense. Freeman was asked if there is a list of what must be private and he said, “Only one; client and attorney.”
Most questions focused on open meetings and executive sessions. To a question from Milo Supervisor John Socha about whether e-mail could be used for straw votes, Freeman answered, “Hell no.” Phone calls are also in the same category. Action may be taken on issues only within the confines of an open meeting. Freeman said the exception is if a law doesn’t exist. Caucuses were used as an example. Freeman said closed caucuses are legal, but bad government.
A question about collective negotiations was asked by a member of the audience and Freeman outlined what is and isn’t public.
He said, “The court of public opinion is more important than legal court. If you don’t like what they are doing, vote the rascals out. Relative few people can affect the course of government.”
Freeman concluded with a offer: “Call any time. We will always get back to you quickly.” The number is 518-474-2518.
Contacted later in the week, Freeman said his agency sees no pattern in the types of questions received. This time of year there may be some on school budgets, but it mainly depends on what is going on in the community. He said questions about how public money is spent are frequently asked with land use as a second, repeating, “There is no particular pattern.”

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