March 30, 2004

Debating Open Government

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Members of the Ithaca community met last night with Robert J. Freedman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, to discuss open government and related issues. Mayor Carolyn S. Peterson arranged the meeting, which she said was the first of what will be several public discussions on public issues.

Open government is a policy which serves to make government more transparent. In New York State, it is legislated by the Freedom of Information, Open Meetings and Personal Privacy Protection Laws, all of which were covered at the meeting last night.

The Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) states that any government record which can be released to the public without causing anyone harm must be made available to any individual who requests it, Freedman explained, while the Open Meetings Law declares that any meeting of government officials must be made open to the public — although certain portions of the meeting can be closed off for specific reasons, such as discussing private issues which concern a specific individual. The Personal Privacy Protection Laws restrict open government’s availability by declaring documents which concern private matters confidential and not able to be disclosed.

Freedman said that there may be “different requirements for disclosure based on circumstances,” adding that the distinction between information that can and cannot be disclosed is a “gut” feeling. He cited Social Security numbers and medical records as examples of documents which may not be disclosed, explaining that “they’re nobody’s business. They’re intimate.”

“What I hope you leave with tonight is [that the] Freedom of Information acts in New York are based on common sense,” Freedman said.

Freedman started the evening by giving a brief description of his office, saying it answers questions that anybody — members of the public, government officials, and others — has about open government. The committee responds to questions by writing opinions on the matter which are then sent back to the affected parties and posted to the committee’s website. Freedman said that his office has put out more than 18,000 such advisories as of yet.

“All we do all day, every day, is give advice to anybody,” Freedman said.

The evening was held as an open discussion, with audience members asking Freedman questions about open government policies. Questions included government officials’ responsibility to answer questions or provide information, ways in which the government must make information available, and what portions of a government’s internal records — such as memos or instructions — can be withheld from the public, among others. Freedman stressed that the Freedom of Information Act pertains only to existing written documents. He warned that the Act’s name is misleading in that it does not pertain to all information. When one community member asked about a police officer who refused to speak to her on a particular issue, Freedman noted that the laws do not require government officials to share anything which is not a physical record.

Another community member said that he once asked for a public document to be e-mailed to him during the previous administration, but that the city clerk said that the document was available at city hall and would not be e-mailed. Freedman responded by saying that the government must provide documents in whatever medium the individual requests, as long as the government is reasonably able to provide the document in such a medium and the individual is willing to pay reproduction fees.

Asked about internal government records, Freedman said that certain documents did not have to be disclosed, including advice or opinions. He said that information which did have to be released includes statistical or factual information, instructions to staff which affect the public, final policy decisions and results of an external audit. Since nearly all documents and memos have at least some factual supporting evidence, Freedman said, nearly all documents must be made at least partially available.

Fay Gourgakis, an Ithaca resident who attended the meeting, said that she liked the session, though she would have preferred if Freedman had started with a longer explanation of what his office does, rather than opening the meeting for questions so quickly. Gourgakis came to the discussion because she had heard of “huge amounts of trouble with FOIL” in the previous administration.

“The public was kept out of the loop,” she said.

Peterson organized the discussion because she noticed when she ran her election campaign that “there was a clear interest in Ithaca about open meetings and open information,” she said. Peterson invited Freedman to evaluate Ithaca’s open government policy, and added that he had met in the afternoon with city staff. Peterson said that that meeting was very well attended and that nearly every city department was represented, including about half of the Common Council.

City clerk Julie Holcomb, whose responsibilities include providing documents under the open government acts, estimated that last year there were about 475 requests for information. She said that most are granted and estimated that less than one percent of all requests are denied.

“There’s an absolute desire in this administration for open government,” Holcomb said.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit
Sun Staff Writer