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Citizen watchdog Right To Know New Hampshire fights for open government

  • David Saad, president of Right to Know New Hampshire, accepts the First Amendment Award 2017 Nackey S. Loeb School of Communication First Amendment Award on Thursday night, Oct. 5, 2017, at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. Attorney Gregory Sullivan received the school’s Quill and Ink award and columnist Garrison Keillor was the event’s featured speaker. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, October 05, 2017

The “Live Free of Die” state prides itself on certain traditions of civic engagement like its citizen Legislature and the first-in-the-nation primary. But speedy, consistent access to government records? That’s a different story.

Enter Right to Know New Hampshire, a scrappy citizen watchdog group that’s been making slow but incremental progress toward transparency since 2013. On Thursday, the group received the First Amendment award from the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.

The group has focused on legislative advocacy, drafting bills aimed at making public records more easily accessible. And while RTK-NH’s more ambitious proposals have faltered in the Legislature, it’s scored some notable wins. In 2016, the group helped get House Bill 606 signed into law, establishing that government officials can’t charge a fee to someone asking to inspect a record without copying it.

The group has also tackled how government entities handle electronic records – an effort that sometimes ends in frustration. Last month the group’s vice president David Taylor lost a fight before the state Supreme Court, which ruled a local school board could charge for a thumb drive with records instead of simply emailing an electronic file.

Among RTK-NH’s top legislative priorities this session will be a bill requiring government entities to provide electronic records for free over the internet upon request.

“Instead of them sending you an email, and attaching the email or the spreadsheet to that email and being done with it, they’ve taken the path of most resistance and said, “Oh, you need to give us a brand new USB device, and we will load it onto that USB device,’ ” said David Saad, RTK-NH’s president.

The group will also ask legislators to consider making collective bargaining negotiations public, and to make discussions about the hiring and firing of high-level municipal officials – like superintendents, police chiefs and town managers – take place in the open. Another bill would require public bodies to create a record that meetings took place every time a quorum of its members convene, even if the subject and content of the meeting itself remains confidential.

When a select board meets with its lawyer, for example, there’s no record that took place, according to Saad. The group wants there to be a basic record of where and when the meeting took place and which public officials were there.

“People get very suspicious when they drive by their town hall and they see that all the selectmen are at the town hall but yet there’s no record of them meeting,” Saad said.

Saad came to the right-to-know group after duking it out with a local board in court. He and the Rumney school board battled in court for years over a right of way on district property that he said he needed to pave in order to access his home, especially during mud season. Saad eventually prevailed.

“I feel compelled to do something to try and improve things so that somebody else doesn’t have to go through the same pain and aggravation that I went through,” he said.

It’s not an uncommon story for people at Right to Know. Harriet Cady, a former state representative and a founding member of the group, has been involved in multiple records appeals in court. A paralegal, Cady has argued cases on her own behalf or helped others file cases and argue them. Louise Andrus, a member at large of the group’s board, has gone to battle several times with the Merrimack Valley school board.

Fittingly, the group’s biggest goal right now is to get rid of the courts as the only recourse in public records cases. Open government advocates say the courts are too lengthy and expensive a venue for everyday citizens to appeal when officials deny requests.

RTK-NH lost multiple bids in the Legislature to establish an independent arbiter, but finally succeeded in getting lawmakers to create a committee to study the problem last session. The committee was slow to receive appointments, but with a Nov. 1 deadline looming to report back on its ideas, it ultimately got to work in September.

Its members are now mulling a proposal to create a citizen’s right-to-know commission to mediate disputes. The commission would appoint an ombudsman to review and rule on cases within 30 days. Parties could contest to a three-member review board, also appointed by the commission. A final proposal should be sent to the House Judiciary committee this month.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)