GLOVERSVILLE - A state official told local public officials and residents Wednesday about a law going into effect next month that will give people more access to public information before meetings.
Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, spoke about the new law and other open-government issues at the Eccentric Club at the request of The Leader-Herald.
The "Disclosure of Records" law will go into effect Feb. 2.
The law will require governments to make documents that will be discussed at a meeting available before the meeting upon request or on a municipal website.
Freeman said the accessibility to the documents will help the public understand the issues and be better prepared to participate in the discussion about them.
According to an explanation of the law on the Committee on Open Government website, "Those interested in the work of public bodies should have the ability, within reasonable limitations, to see the records scheduled to be discussed during open meetings prior to the meetings."
Robert J. Freeman, left, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, speaks at a forum at the Eccentric Club in Gloversville on Wednesday presented by The Leader-Herald.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
The amendment addresses records that are required to be made available pursuant to the state Freedom of Information Law and proposed resolutions, laws, rules, regulations, policies or amendments. When the documents are scheduled to be discussed during an open meeting, the law requires they be made available to the public before or at the meeting, according to the new law.
To comply with the provisions, copies of records must be made available for a reasonable fee or by posting them online.
Cindy Ostrander, Gloversville deputy city clerk, said she foresees no difficulty abiding by the new law.
"We have agendas available to the public the Friday before the meeting," she said. "I also put the agendas on our website by the Monday before a Tuesday meeting at the latest."
Johnstown City Clerk Cathy VanAlstyne said she also foresees no problem.
"We already post the agenda on our website the Wednesday before a Monday meeting," she said.
She said the meeting agenda and resolutions to be discussed are attached to the agenda and available as a packet to the media before the meeting.
During Freeman's presentation, Jack Scott, owner and general manager of radio station WENT-AM, asked what penalties public entities could be subject to if they didn't comply with open-government laws.
Freeman said if a plaintiff wins a court case against a government entity, that entity would be responsible for court costs and attorney's fees.
"There may also be some court-ordered training," he said. "But the court of public opinion is the most effective. Sunlight is the best disinfectant."
Freeman gave both humorous and serious reasonings for the public's right to know how government works and what it must disclose to the public.
In answering questions regarding the proper reasons for any public group to go into executive session and exclude the public and media, Freeman said the reasoning is found in the title of the Tracy Chapman song, "Give Me One Reason."
He said eight reasons can justify executive sessions in the state's Public Officers Law. He said the excuse "personnel" is no reason for a public body to close a meeting to the public.
"It's crap," he said. "It's a myth."
To clarify, he said the "medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person" would be a legitimate reason for a public body to adjourn a public meeting and go into an executive session.
Leader-Herald reporter Michael Anich asked Freeman whether public agencies and government fail to follow open-government and meeting laws because they are ignorant of the law or are trying to deceive the public.
Freeman said most public officials and boards err because of ignorance of the law.
"It's partly due to the constantly changing cast of characters," he said, referring to the rotation of newly elected officials.
Freeman said professional journalists will continue to be needed in spite of the proliferation of Internet bloggers and websites.
"You need professional journalists. They are truth seekers," he said. "Anyone can start a blog."
More information about the new law regarding records and open meetings can be found at www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/RecordsDiscussedatMeetings.html.