Few people understand the link between informed citizens and good government better than does Robert J. Freeman.
As the executive director of the states Committee on Open Government, its Mr. Freemans mission to ensure New York residents know what tools are available to obtain information on what elected officials are doing. He advises government leaders, community groups, members of the public and representatives of news organizations on what constitutes a public record and how to access it.
The committee is responsible for overseeing and advising with regard to the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law, according to the committees website. Staff of the committee gives advice by telephone, email, written advisory opinions and training classes conducted throughout the state. Advice is offered to the government, the public and the news media.
The service that Mr. Freeman and the committee have rendered to the public has reached a milestone. On March 21, 1974, he began working for the committee the day it began operating eventually being appointed executive director in 1976.
This 40th anniversary comes at a unique time. The period of March 16 through March 22 has been designated Sunshine Week, a time to focus on the importance of open government and access to information.
The first such event, Sunshine Sunday, was organized in 2002 by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Members felt it was imperative to remind people how vital it is to guard against government officials who seek to create more barriers to public information. Some legislators in Florida attempted to approve more exemptions to the states public access laws.
With an inaugural grant from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has continued to support the effort, Sunshine Week was launched by the American Society of News Editors in March 2005, according to information on the groups website. This nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative is celebrated in mid-March each year to coincide with James Madisons birthday on March 16.
Mr. Freeman obtained a law degree from New York University and a bachelor of science degree in foreign service from Georgetown University. He has been recognized many times for his work on behalf of citizens who wish to be informed about their local governments.
He received the John Peter Zenger Award from the New York News Publishers Association in 2010. The National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists selected him for their Heroes of the 50 States award as well as induction into the Open Government Hall of Fame. He also was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the New York State Associated Press Association.
Our government works best when we all take an interest in what its doing and we have the means to access information. Mr. Freeman and the Committee on Open Government deserve our appreciation for working so diligently to keep the spirit of Sunshine Week alive throughout the year.