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Robert J. Freeman reflects on 40 years upholding government transparency

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In 1974, the state of New York was preparing to implement the Freedom of Information Law to bring more transparency to government. State officials were scrambling to find people to ensure the law was correctly implemented.

Robert J. Freeman, who was then working with the state Department of Social Services, remembers getting a call from someone in the office of then-Gov. Malcolm Wilson asking him to join the newly created Committee on Public Access to Records, the agency tasked with implementing the law.

Mr. Freeman said he didn’t know anything about the new freedom of information laws, and the staffer from the governor’s office said that was fine. No one else did, either.

“It was clearly an experiment,” Mr. Freeman said of the position.

Within two years, Mr. Freeman was made executive director.

Forty years after he started with the agency, Mr. Freeman still serves as executive director of the state Committee on Open Government — formerly known as the Committee on Public Access to Records — and says he hasn’t looked back.

“I was one of those kids in the 60s who used to sit around in college with friends who talked about how we were going to change the world,” Mr. Freeman said. Working on government transparency “gave me an opportunity to live based on those ideals.”

On a daily basis Mr. Freeman consults with other government agencies, local governments, and citizen organizations helping them better understand and use the state’s laws that guarantee government transparency.

He is also a frequent source of guidance to journalists and conducts training seminars for any organization that asks for guidance on FOIL.

“The best part of the job in my opinion has become teaching,” Mr. Freeman said. “I do lots of training during the course of the year for just about anybody who asks.”

A lot has changed in 40 years, Mr. Freeman said, especially relating to how people gain access to public records.

“When FOIL was enacted in the 70s high-tech was an electric typewriter,” he said. “The reality is that our thought process has had to evolve in an attempt to ensure that access to records.”

Asked about the impact of the Internet on government transparency, Mr. Freeman said, “Have you been to a government agency website lately? Often you can find an array of information that would have been difficult or impossible to find before.”

Mr. Freeman likes to say that his “client is the law,” and he said that he early on shunned a life in private practice in order to serve in a position that he found morally rewarding.

After graduating from law school, Mr. Freeman said he did a brief stint in a private law firm, “and I couldn’t stand it.”

In private practice, Mr. Freeman said, there is always pressure to work more in order to make more money.

“I always thought it was more important to be home, sitting with my family for dinner,” he said. “There are trade-offs in life.”

Over the years, Mr. Freeman has received numerous awards for his work including a Lifetime Achievement Award by the New York State Associated Press Association.

Mr. Freeman lives in Albany with his wife of 42 years, Felice. He has three children and five grandchildren.

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