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Madison thinks: 'open it up'

The it is government.

Residents of Madison County turned out en masse on Thursday night to learn how to keep government accountable to its constituents.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York's Open Government Committee spoke for two hours on the state's Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Law. These two laws are intended to safeguard the public's right to governmental records and to ensure that public meetings of governmental entities are not conducted in secret.

The event, hosted by Eagle Newspapers and held at the Rusty Rail in Canastota, attracted approximately 100 people. These included members of the county board of supervisors, town and village councilors, and many private citizens.

Freeman fielded a barrage of questions from an enthusiastic and interested audience. Many expressed concerns about how and why a board may go into executive session, how to get officials to respond to requests for information, what to do when they fail to respond.

He detailed recent amendments to the laws, designed to make them stronger, but noted that they still have "baby teeth." He urged people to contact their state legislators -- particularly Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans -- to press them to strengthen the laws.

If that fails to work, there is another option for a public concerned with recalcitrant and unresponsive elected officials. "Throw the rascals out of office," he said. "Elect someone else."

The Open Government Committee offers oral and written advice and opinions on questions arising under FOIL and the Open Meetings Law. Freeman has been associated with the committee since its inception in 1974 and has served as executive director since 1976.

Since then, the committee has issued, at the request of the public, media organizations and government, some 20,000 written advisory opinions on a wide range of topics; Freeman's office has also provided thousands of oral opinions to telephone requestors. For more information about the committee and to search its opinion database, go to dos.state.ny.us/coog/coogwww.html.

An engaging and entertaining speaker, Freeman speaks at dozens of similar events around the state each year and clearly relishes his work. "I have the best job in state government," he said.

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