Open Government session draws crowd in Philipstown
An eager audience of 60 people heard Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, spur them on Wednesday evening to monitor and sometimes challenge their local government bodies.
The session, at the North Highlands Firehouse in Philipstown, ran past two hours as Freeman took one question, jumped in rapidly with a response, and then took another and another. The only delay, in fact, was people walking to and from their chairs to the microphone at the front.
A political who’s who of Philipstown and Putnam County attended, from most of the Philipstown Town Board, to Assemblywoman Sandy Galef and her challenger, Kim Izzarelli, to Neil Di Carlo, who is running in a Republican primary for State Senate against incumbent Sen. Stephen Saland, to County Executive MaryEllen Odell. A number of others involved in local civic affairs attended, as well, including several officials of various fire companies, Airinhos Serradas, the former Cold Spring Trustee and, of course, a number of members of the Citizens of Philipstown group.
Freeman opened by noting that most of the evening would be question and answer, and said he enjoys these kinds of events. “Everybody hears the question and the answer at the same time,” he said, noting that he would be providing answers without knowing whether a questioner was an ordinary citizen or a top local official.
“Our only goal is to give what we believe to be the right answer under the law, regardless of who asks the question,” he said.
Freeman said New York’s laws on open government are based on a presumption of openness. Sometimes, questions are basic. “What is a meeting of a public body?” he said. “It seems like a simple issue, but the fact is, questions continue to arise.”
He related that that the state’s courts have ruled – based on a seminal case in nearby Newburgh – that anytime a majority of the body gathers to conduct public business, it’s a meeting. That is so even if no vote is taken, or intended to be taken. Many public bodies have tried to get around the public meeting requirement by calling some sessions non-voting “workshops” or “study sessions,” he said.
Far more information, and hundreds of advisory opinions on open government questions, can be found at the committee’s website: http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/index.html.