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Sununu’s picks among three unfilled seats on right-to-know commission

  • Gov. Chris Sununu speaks with the Monitor in Bedford on Tuesday, April. 11, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz



Monitor staff
Monday, August 28, 2017

Months after the creation of a commission to study revisions to New Hampshire’s right-to-know laws, the deadline for its final report – Nov. 1 – is looming.

But the commission is still not fully formed: Three of its 13 members have yet to be appointed, despite an approaching Sept. 7 inaugural meeting.

Two of those missing three are appointees of Gov. Chris Sununu, who signed the law creating the commission on June 16. The third member is to be appointed by the N.H. School Boards Association.

Meanwhile, the upcoming meeting itself is behind schedule. The bill that established the commission, House Bill 178, mandated that its members meet within 30 days of June 16 – a deadline that passed more than a month ago.

A spokesman for Sununu said the governor’s office is reviewing applications ahead of making its two appointments. One of those members must be a citizen representative; the other must be a citizen who has represented him- or herself in a right-to-know lawsuit, according to the act.

Sununu’s spokesman, Ben Vihstadt didn’t specify how many applications, but said the office plans to have the appointments in place ahead of the Sept. 7 meeting.

And Barrett Christina, executive director of the School Boards Association, said the organization is still narrowing down a short list of school board members before it selects its representative.

Now, with the clock ticking for an ambitious plan to produce a report to improve New Hampshire’s public records system and lower costs, advocates for reform are keeping up an optimistic face.

“Our goal basically is to find a lower bar, a less intimidating and expensive mechanism to try to resolve right-to-know complaints,” said David Taylor, vice president of Right to Know New Hampshire, an advocacy organization. It’s a goal, he added, that’s shared by public officials and transparency advocates alike.

For years, Right to Know New Hampshire has been pressing for changes to the state’s public records law, known as “right-to-know.” Advocates for reform argue that the present system, which mandates that all disputes over the release of information be settled in Superior Court, creates a costly legal roadblock that deters citizens from fighting back.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity rated New Hampshire the 49th best state for Public Access to Information and gave the state an “F” rating. In its report, the organization cited the New Hampshire’s lack of an arbitration mechanism for records-request conflicts as the primary reason for its harsh assessment.

News organizations, too, have met frustrations. Trent Spiner, executive editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper and a representative of the N.H. Press Association on the commission, railed against inconsistent interpretation of the right-to-know law among cities and towns. Some towns charge for emailed information; others deny basic information about arrested subjects, he said. Challenging decisions in court can cost newspapers thousands of dollars, he added.

But efforts by Right to Know New Hampshire to advocate for a process beyond the existing court system have faltered. Lawmakers voted down two bills in 2014 and 2015 that would have created a grievance commission featuring an independent arbiter for disputes.

HB 178, which passed both the House and Senate by voice vote this spring, was a rare breakthrough in the effort. The act mandates that the commission study “alternative processes” to resolve right-to-know disputes, with a focus on reducing costs for courts, public bodies and citizens.

Serving on the commission are four government representatives, four elected officials and five representatives of watchdog groups, including the New Hampshire arm of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Hampshire Press Association.

Two of the groups – Right to Know New Hampshire and the N.H. Municipal Association – have taken opposite positions on records-request reform in recent years.

The Municipal Association has been lobbying for a change that would mandate that those seeking public records pay for the time used by employees to collect them. Speaking Monday, Cordell Johnston, Government Affairs Counsel for the Association, said that towns and municipalities often face requests that are overly broad and voluminous, requiring extensive man hours on the part of public officials.

Right to Know New Hampshire, meanwhile, pressed for legislation this spring that would have required public bodies pay the legal fees of citizen litigants provided the citizens are successful. That bill, House Bill 365, failed in the House by three votes.

But despite some cavernous policy differences, many members of the study commission maintain optimism that the targeted focus of the commission – to find an alternative dispute mechanism and reduce the lengthy court battles – will unite all sides.

“Everybody, I think, realizes that the current system is expensive and burdensome,” Taylor said. “We all want to get to a point where it’s less expensive for everybody. So I think that common goal is shared.”