CHESTERTOWN - About 50 concerned citizens, town officials, and political activists heard Robert Freeman Feb. 9 address concerns of secrecy and openness in government in a public meeting held meeting held Feb. 9 in the town of Chester Municipal Center.
Freeman, who is executive director of the state Department of State's Committee on Open Government, had been invited by North Country Gazette Publisher June Maxam and town of Horicon Assessor Christine Hayes, who challenged the Chestertown Fire Department in court to obtain their financial records.
Supreme Court Justice David Krogmann recently rendered a decision in that case limiting access to documents from the Chestertown Fire Co., noting that the group was an independent group and not a public entity, although they provide a public service.
At the Feb. 9 meeting, Freeman aired criticism of Krogmann's decision. Citing a case of Westchester Rockland Newspapers vs. Kimball, Freeman said that volunteer fire companies' entire records should be available to the public because they historically perform a governmental function and the groups would not exist otherwise.
Questioned about emergency squads, Freeman said that the court has determined they are covered under the FOI law if they have a contract with the government.
Freeman spoke both about the FOI law and the state's Open Meetings Law.
Exchange of emails, does not constitute a meeting, he said, because they may be ignored for days. A conference call or messages exchanged in a chat room, however, would constitute a meeting, he said.
From the audience, Carol LaGrasse said that when the Adirondack Park Agency Board retreats into executive session to discuss litigation, they don't always state clearly what case they are discussing. Freeman answered that a motion to go into executive session must have sufficient detail to know what is to be discussed. Fear of future litigation is not sufficient for a group to call an executive session, he said.
Freeman added that the oft-quoted "personnel issues" reason in itself does not justify a legal executive session. A public board is only allowed to go into an executive session to discuss specific medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person - or the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.
What if a board goes into executive session for one issue and then discusses another issue that was not stated?
Freeman said that it is not contrary to law for a board member to reveal the contents of an executive session, especially if the subject discussed was not allowed by law in the a closed session.
The question of mumbling board members was raised. Freeman said that in a meeting, board members are obligated to speak loud enough to be heard distinctly. He encouraged the audience to challenge the board members and to call out, "Speak up, we can't hear you."
Asked his opinion about suing the courts to enforce requests under FOIL, Freeman said that using the courts is the last option. He advised obtaining his legal opinions on the Committee on open Government's website.
"A quote from me sometimes forces compliance," he said. "Use me until you use me up."