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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 16, 2006

Freeman: A man who preserves democratic ideals

It’s Sunshine Week, meant to highlight the public’s access to government records and meetings. We believe that, for our democracy — a government of the people, by the people and for the people — to work well, its citizens must be fully and fairly informed.

New York State has two open-government laws — The Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law. We use these laws weekly to cover local public schools, police, and municipal government.

We believe, as United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant."

All 50 states have some sort of freedom-of-information or open-meetings law, but New York is one of only a handful to have offices to answer questions about the law.

We often rely on the counsel and expertise of Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, to guide us. He is a tireless and informed advocate of the public’s right to know.

He has developed a niche that makes his legal expertise sought across the country and around the world.

Freeman says he "fell into it" more than a quarter of a century ago. As a young lawyer working for the state, he was loaned to the committee set up to oversee the implementation of the state’s two new open-government laws.

But Freeman’s passion — for discussion, for understanding, for improving the world — was rooted in his upbringing.

"My two brothers and I were second-generation Americans," Freeman said. He was the oldest of three boys and vividly remembers the family’s dinner-table discussions.

"We always discussed the issues of the moment," he said. "There was lots of disagreement, and no holding back — ever."

Freeman went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., majoring in international affairs, and then to law school at New York University. He said the most important part of college was "the extension of the dinner table — sitting around with your friends, deciding how to change the world."

Freeman says he likes his work for three reasons. "Number one, the law is based on democratic ideals, consistent with all the discussions around the dinner table and in the dorms.

"Number two, as a brand-new law, it offered great opportunities to be creative.

"Number three, it gave me a chance to deal with all kinds of people — from state and local government, from the public, from the news media."

When he started, Freeman said, "I was a kid unfamiliar in the ways of Albany...I didn’t know who was important. I always tried to give the right answer no matter who called, and I still do."

Using his nimble mind, decades of experience, and rapid-fire speech, he constantly educates and enlightens others — the press, the public, government officials — about the law. He speaks to groups ranging from reporting interns just starting their careers at The Legislative Gazette to seasoned journalists at the annual New York Press Association convention.

Freeman’s rational approach can turn rancor into compliance. Five years ago, to use a local example, he was invited to the Guilderland Public Library by the library’s director and a trustee to conduct a workshop on open government. The bitterness and rancor which at the time had typified exchanges among library board members, library employees, and community activists was replaced with civil discourse.

"The more open a board is," Freeman said then, "the more the public sees decisions are not easily made." The public learns that issues are not black and white, he said, but shades of gray.

He described the press as the public’s eyes and ears and said that shedding light — some might call it embarrassment — is a way to get a board to comply with the law; weekly newspapers can have "a huge amount of influence," he said.

We arm each of our reporters — often the only reporter at a local meeting — with a copy of the state’s Open Meetings Law and with Freeman’s advice. He advises reporters to confront boards that are about to go into an illegal executive session with the law’s list of eight reasons and say, "Tell me where it is on the list." If it’s not there, the board shouldn’t go into executive session.

Over the years, we have called Freeman, even late at night, when one of our reporters had been bounced from a meeting and, with his words of wisdom, gotten the reporter back in.

We have also sought Freeman’s guidance countless times in prying from unwilling hands records that the public is entitled to see. Filing a freedom-of-information request is simple, but it’s often difficult to get a government agency to comply.

A recent local example is our quest for the contracts of two top Voorheesville school administrators.

On Jan. 24, the state comptroller held a press conference, claiming to have discovered corruption in the Voorheesville School District. He stated that the former superintendent, Alan McCartney, had improperly paid himself an extra $127,338 over his 16-year tenure and that the retired assistant superintendent, Anthony Marturano, had, over 11 years, collected $89,069 inappropriately. The same day as the press conference, the school district filed suits against McCartney and Marturano to recoup the money it claims they weren’t entitled to.

When Marturano first heard of the allegations — that he collected extra vacation and sick-leave compensation without permission — he thought it would all be settled quickly once his contract was reviewed, he said. McCartney has remained silent.

"It’s all spelled out in the contract," Marturano said. He didn’t do anything that was not permissible, he said.

When we first asked for the administrators’ contracts, we were told the contracts couldn’t be released since the matter was under litigation. We wrote about it in this space, quoting Freeman. "Litigation has not changed their character," he said. "The contracts are just as public now as they were before litigation...They must disclose the contracts," he said of the district.

Then, in denying our freedom-of-information request, the district told us it didn’t have the contracts because they had been subpoenaed by the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, which is investigating the case.

We found it hard to believe the district or its lawyers hadn’t kept copies and, when we discussed this with Freeman, he advised us to ask for written certification from the school district that it had no copies of the contracts. We did so.

The school district then responded that we could have the contracts but it would take up to another month to get them back from the district attorney’s office. The school district’s freedom-of-information officer then relayed a message from the superintendent that, she said, putting in writing that the district did not have the contracts would be creating a new document, which runs counter to the Freedom of Information Law, so it could not be done.

Meanwhile, Freeman wrote a letter to the district attorney’s office and to the school district informing them they must disclose the contracts. On Friday, more than a month after our initial request, our reporter, Holly Grosch, was handed copies of the contract by the school district’s superintendent.

We are, as always, grateful to Freeman. The public is the beneficiary. It is, after all, the public’s money that is paying for those contracts. You have a right to know what is in them.

You can read in this week’s paper what those contracts say. But, we should caution you, although the contracts are in black and white, the answers are still in shades of gray. This week, we’ve filed a freedom-of-information request for several more documents from the school that will be needed to tell the rest of the story.

With Freeman’s help, we hope to shed more light.

Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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