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Streamlined process would settle right-to-know disputes out of court



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A commission has recommended a new process for dealing with complaints under New Hampshire’s right-to-know law, after weeks of consultation and mounting complaints that the present system is expensive and overly time consuming.

In a report released this week, the Commission to Study Processes to Resolve Right-to-Know Complaints advocated for an extrajudicial system within which citizens can appeal when public officials refuse to grant records requests under the law, RSA 91-A.

The commission called for the creation of an ombudsman who could hear from both sides and issue a recommendation before the matter is taken to court.

Under the present system, appeals must be made directly in Superior Court, a requirement reform advocates argue carries large legal bills and long delays.

Citizens testifying before the commission complained that the process is obscure, with public bodies often providing little to no information on why it was invoking an exemption to the right-to-know law, according to the report. Finding out the answer, the report added, often means having to go to court.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity granted New Hampshire an “F” rating for public access to information, ranking it 49th in the country, only ahead of Wyoming.

In response to years of pressure from advocacy organizations, including Right-to-Know New Hampshire, the Legislature created the study commission, comprised of advocates, representatives and public officials.

Under the commission’s plan, New Hampshire’s ombudsman would be appointed by a 17-member “Citizen’s Right-to-Know Commission,” comprised of citizens and representatives.

New Hampshire residents and organizations whose right-to-know requests were rejected by public officials could appeal the rulings to the ombudsman, who would rule on the merits.

In making the decision, the ombudsman would be allowed to review the documents in question confidentially to determine whether the exemption is necessary. The decision could then be appealed to Superior Court by either party; appeals made by citizens would have the applicable court fees waived.

“The Commission agrees that an ‘express lane’ process to resolve right-to-know grievances which is easier, cheaper, and faster is needed,” the report stated.

The report also recommended requiring public officials be trained in their responsibilities under the right-to-know law, to reduce cases of wrongful rejections.

It is unclear how the report will be received in the Legislature. Similar efforts in the past have failed; lawmakers voted down two bills in 2014 and 2015 that would have created a grievance commission featuring an independent arbiter for disputes.

But Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, who chaired the commission, expressed confidence.

“The final report adopted by the Commission today will serve as an outline for changes we hope to make to statute ...” he said in statement.

He added: “Studying and working to improve the state’s Right-to-Know statue is essential to providing transparency and opportunity for citizens to be part of their government.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)