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Sunshine Week: Public information stories traded at right-to-know panel event

  • Right to Know New Hampshire President David Saad (right) speaks from a panel at the Nackey S. Loeb School Of Communications on the state's public information law Tuesday evening. (NICK REID / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
From a panel discussion on the state’s right-to-know law Tuesday, Rick Gagliuso said he hoped there would be at least two takeaways.

First, the attorney and New England First Amendment Coalition board member wanted the audience gathered at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications in Manchester to remember: Those public records that you’re seeking to inspect, with a few exceptions, belong to you and not the board or agency they’re about.

“You have to start with the proposition that those records are ours. Too many boards and agencies and officials around the state still have the notion that . . . ‘They’re mine,’ ” he said.

Second, he hopes the Legislature is searching for a way to make the appeals process less painful for people who feel they’ve been wrongly denied access to public information.

In that realm, he floated two ideas. One was to institute some kind of intermediary between the denying official or board and the court system. The other is to provide a more likely way to recoup the cost of a lawsuit – at minimum, $275 for a superior court filing fee – for those whose appeals are validated by the court.

“If you could give me one shot at amending the right-to-know law that I think would make it far more effective for all of us, I would provide for the recovery of legal expenses anytime you prevail on a right-to-know request,” he said.

Typically even petitioners who win their cases aren’t reimbursed for the filing cost, he said.

At least one lawmaker heard his plea. Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper was sitting in the front row and eventually spoke up, saying the reimbursement plan was “the best idea I’ve heard” from the panel.

Jasper joined in with the “war stories” that were being traded among members of the news media and legal representatives of local and state government, as well as vigilant private citizens. When he was a selectman in Hudson, he said, he walked out from a board that was abusing nonpublic meetings.

But there’s another side of the coin, too, when members of the public broadly request decades-old records that require lots of time and effort to produce. That’s why the House said there should still be a fee to produce right-to-know requests that aren’t relevant to any ongoing action, he said.

Dan Crean, a municipal attorney, added that some people have made burdensome right-to-know requests for commercial purposes, which is another reason towns want the ability to charge for the cost of adhering to right-to-know requests.

Although some commentators were more cynical than others, most people agreed that failing to properly comply with the right-to-know law is frequently a result of ignorance, not malevolence. Cordell Johnston, now an attorney and lobbyist for the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said when he joined Henniker’s planning board nearly 20 years ago, the board tended to go into nonpublic sessions whenever they wanted to talk about something they didn’t want the public to hear. It was an all-volunteer board, and members didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong, he said.

“It took me to look at the statute and say, um, it doesn’t say we can go into nonpublic session whenever we want to talk about something that’s awkward or uncomfortable,” he said.

Gagliuso said it took him years to come to this conclusion – and there are some bad apples out there – but for the most part elected volunteers are doing their best.

“What I have found – and it’s even more frustrating maybe – is the public official or board member who says y’know I have the public’s interest at heart and I think the best thing I can do to protect the interest of the public is to keep this secret. I’ve run into that over and over,” he said.

This, he said, is yet another reminder of the importance of Sunshine Week and all other efforts to ensure accountability, and awareness, among public officials.



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)