The Enterprise, led by Zweifel, named an Open Government Champion

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Noah Zweifel

The Enterprise was one of eight news organizations to receive an Open Government Champion award from the New York Coalition for Open Government this week.

“As we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July, we want to take the opportunity to recognize media organizations as a vital pillar of our democracy,” said an announcement from the coalition. “No democracy can flourish without an informed citizenry, and the press is our natural ally in the quest to inform the public and defend citizens’ rights to access information from public institutions.”

While Enterprise reporters for decades have filed Freedom of Information Law requests and pressed to attend improperly closed meetings, in recent years, Hilltown reporter Noah Zweifel has taken the lead in not just covering open-government issues but covering the coalition and its initiatives as well.

Zweifel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the State University of New York at Geneseo in December 2018 and joined The Enterprise the following October, has assiduously covered the rural Helderberg Hilltowns since.

The not-for-profit Coalition for Open Government was founded by attorney Paul Wolf in 2018, the same year that Zweifel started his career in journalism.

Its mission statement says the coalition “promotes open, transparent government and defends citizens’ right to access information from public institutions and the city, county, and state levels.”

In 2020, Zweifel wrote about the coalition’s call for Berne officials to allow public comment at every meeting held by the town board, which then had allowed public comment only at every other regularly scheduled meeting. The coalition also asked that the town clerk post meeting minutes online within the two-week period allowed by New York’s Open Meetings Law.

“The residents of Berne,” the coalition’s report concluded, “have been subjected to a dysfunctional government, which has resulted in investigations, censures, lawsuits, audits, and improper executive sessions, all while being kept in the dark in many ways by the Town Board and Town Clerk. The Town Board has additionally muted the public by not allowing the public to be heard at every Town Board meeting.”

Wolf said that his organization became aware of the lack of transparency in Berne as a result of ongoing coverage by The Enterprise, which is the only news agency that regularly covers government in the rural Hilltowns.

Zweifel had looked at all six executive sessions held by the town board between Jan. 1, 2020 — when the new GOP-backed board took control — and November of that year. His story detailed how five of the six executive-session motions were made improperly. The Enterprise editorialized on the issue as well.

“The news media plays an extremely important role in bringing open government issues to light and pressure that brings about changes,” Wolf said at the time.

Zweifel went on to cover, in 2021, the signing of a state law that requires all public bodies that have a website to post the minutes of any meeting within two weeks of that meeting online; two state bills that would reduce government opacity; in 2022, the failure of the Albany County Board of Elections to comply with FOIL requests; volunteers, including Robyn Gray of Guilderland, who serve on the Coalition for Open Government’s Capital Region advisory council; and in 2024, four bills that would increase the strength of New York State’s Freedom of Information Law.

“The Altamont Enterprise is honored to be recognized for its coverage of government transparency and its attempts to educate readers on the laws that are in place to keep them informed, hold public officials accountable to those laws, and expose the many gaps in the state’s enforcement,” Zweifel said in a statement, accepting the Open Government Champion award for The Enterprise.

“This coverage is inspired heavily by the work of the coalition, which has shown time and time again that this issue is not particular to one area but spread across the state and through all levels of government,” he said.

The other seven news organizations to be recognized with the award are:

—  The Post-Journal, a daily newspaper covering the area around Jamestown;

— The RiverheadLocal, a digital publication covering Suffolk County;

— Palladium-Times, a daily newspaper covering Oswego County;

— The Mountain Eagle, a weekly newspaper covering Schoharie, Greene, and Delaware counties;

— Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, a daily newspaper,covering eastern Niagara County;

— Adirondack Daily Enterprise, a daily newspaper covering Saranac Lake and Lake Placid; and

— Westmore News, a weekly newspaper covering Port Chester and Rye Brook in Westchester County.

During the online awards presentation, Benjamin Joe, a reporter with the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, proudly held up what he called a “cheat sheet” that Lockport officials had produced after he challenged them on going into executive sessions improperly, citing the reasons allowed by the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Joe’s editor called the coalition members “freedom fighters for information.”

The coalition also gave two awards to students:

— Holden Velasco, editor of The Knight News of Queens College, who revived the print edition of the student-run publication, which had been online for four years; and

— Adelaide Barlow, who is graduating this June from Corning-Painted Post High School in Corning, New York with an International Baccalaureate diploma.

“Right now, student journalists do not have the same rights,” said Barlow, who is an advocate for the Student Journalist Free Speech Act, which enshrines the Tinker standard for students’ freedom of expression.

In 1969, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in Tinker v. Des Moines, in favor of Mary Beth Tinker, a 13-year-old girl who was suspended from school, with a group of like-minded students, for wearing a black armband to protest the war in Vietnam.

Barlow quoted from the Supreme Court decision that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

She said that 18 states have passed a free-speech act for student journalists, but New York is not one of them.

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