Three dozen area residents gathered Thursday night at the Mahopac Public Library to ask questions and learn more about their rights when it comes to government.
Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government since 1976, spoke about open meetings and the Freedom of Information laws – enacted in the 1970s they seek to abolish back-room governance and barriers to public records.
Freeman has administered both statutes since their genesis. Along the way, while relishing “the best job in state government,” as he described, he’s become a household name in newsrooms and people seeking his advice.
His audience this week comprised of newspeople, private citizens and public officials. For more than two hours, he described how his office administers New York’s two landmark statutes, discussed their relative importance and took inevitable questions on the controversial application recently of public-access rights: the Journal News’ December publication of the names and addresses of residents with pistol permits.
Gun owners were outraged and Freeman, who said his office routinely fields 1,200 to 1,300 media inquiries annually, was suddenly deluged with telephone calls from news outlets. His interrogators, then and Thursday night, asked how the government could simply disclose that information.
Saying “that [answer] is really simple,” Freeman traced the history of public records, noting that “for years and years and years, the penal law...specified that the names and address of firearms licensees are public.”
"They are public,” he said.
“That’s why I had to say ‘Yes, of course, the Journal News —and anybody else—has the right to obtain the names and addresses,’” Freeman said.
Freeman recalled that the Wall Street Journal went to the state’s highest court after New York City denied its 1980 request for the names and addresses of pistol-permit holders, which the court—to the dismay of many—declared a public record.
"If you don’t like the penal law, go to the state Legislature...and attempt to change the law," Freeman said.
Dennis C. Tate, a Yorktown resident, later questioned just how much sway the individual has with elected authority. In the evening’s only heated exchange, Tate asked whether a public body—a town board for example—can refuse to allow public comment. Freeman said nothing requires a board to hear from residents.
“The public doesn’t have a right to question their government," Tate responded. "What good are all these laws? They don’t help us. If we want to get up and speak, they turn around and go, ‘No, we don’t want to hear you. Go away.’ What the hell kind of open government is that?"
“They are allowed to do that,” Freeman said.
"The law doesn’t protect us," Tate said. "It doesn’t allow us to speak a word. And don’t tell me about voting, because that’s a whole other story. The only reason these people get in is because of apathy. People don’t turn out to vote because they get discouraged and they don’t care."
"You stand up there and say it was right [for the newspaper to identify gun-permit holders], they have the right to do that?" Tate told Freeman.
"They have the right to do it...because it’s the law," Freeman said.
"You know what?" Tate later countered. "My name is on that Journal News list, and I don’t give a damn."
Most of the evening’s exchanges were seeking information on the laws and the operations of Freeman’s office. Among the highlights:
Click here for a link to the Committee on Open Government and Freeman’s office, part of the Secretary of State’s operation;
Telephone queries are welcomed, will likely go to voicemail but, “We will always return the call; we will always get back to you...More likely than not, we’ll provide an answer right on the spot.”
Penalties for violations include paying the aggrieved party’s attorney’s fees and, in some rare but apparently unwelcome cases, remedial training in the requirements of the open-meetings and public-access laws.
Missing records are sometimes suddenly located simply by asking, as the law provides, for certification by the government agency, in writing, that the documents cannot be found.
Public access to those records is embodied in the state’s Freedom of Information Law, enacted in 1977 and commonly know as FOIL.
“My belief is that the Open Meetings Law is important,” Freeman said. “But in reality, it’s perhaps not quite as important as FOIL. Why? Because we have government records on everything...and they are preserved."