When Bob Freeman goes to work each day, it’s only a matter of time before he makes a public official or government worker in New York upset.
As executive director for the state Committee on Open Government, Freeman is the state’s go-to guy for questions from the public, media and government officials about what records are available to the public, what meetings are open to the public, and when government records can be withheld from the public.
Sometimes the answers, or formal advisory opinions, he and his three-person staff give to those questions aren’t always what officials want to hear.
“To be honest with you I really don’t care who I upset,” he told a Schenectady crowd Wednesday night. “If I don’t upset someone in government every day, I didn’t go to work.”
Freeman answered questions for over an hour and a half at a public forum on open government hosted by The Daily Gazette. Five Schenectady City Council members, a pair of school board members and other public officials joined around 75 people for the discussion, and the questions came fast and furious from everyone in attendance.
The conversation quickly veered toward the right of a newly-formed Schenectady mayoral commission, the Smart Cities Advisory Commission, to hold closed meetings. Freeman said the panel had the right to do so, although it isn’t required to do so, since it isn’t a board formed by an act of law.
But, Freeman added, “whatever records they create, produce or acquire do fall under” the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Moreover, some advisory committees may want to hold public meetings to garner input and feedback from residents or show the community they have nothing to hide, he said.
Residents in the crowd also expressed support for government transparency and the importance an informed public plays in the business of government.
“An informed public is definitely a friendly public,” said James Covey, a former state Health Department worker who lives in Schenectady. “And by closing meetings and preventing the public from going, all you are doing is alienating the public.”
Throughout the discussion, Freeman urged a broad conception of public records, arguing that the presumption for all records “kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for” a public agency or body should be that they are open to the public. Unless that public agency can prove disclosure of those records would cause harm.
“Everything is open except to the extent that disclosure would hurt someone significantly,” he said. And no, records that would “embarrass” public officials don’t qualify for their own exemption, he said.
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.