3 bills to give more public info dubbed ‘horrendous’ by N.H. Municipal Association

Monitor staff
Monday, March 05, 2018

Three bills coming before the House this week aim to give the public more information about their government by eliminating some exemptions in the right-to-know law.

The supporters of these bills say they are furthering the purpose and intent of the right-to-know law, which is to ensure “the greatest possible public access” to the actions of government.

The New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA), which lobbies the Legislature on behalf of cities and towns, doesn’t agree.

The organization deemed each of the three bills “horrendous,” in a bulletin it sent to its members.

One bill, House Bill 1323, would make the evaluations of top employees – city managers, school superintendents and police chiefs – public info. As top wage earners who manage and run multimillion-dollar departments, the law affords them the same personnel exemptions as the local garbage man.

Former Timberlane School Board member Donna Green said she thinks the public is entitled to more information.

“Our superintendent is the highest-paid superintendent in the state, and our constituents have no idea for the reasons behind it,” Green said.

Timberlane Superintendent Earl Metzler earned $165,909 last year.

“We get these salaries and people are gobstruck by it,” Green said.

The need for more public information became clear to Green back in 2015, she said. During a nonpublic session on Metzler’s evaluation, another school board member made a motion to extend the superintendent’s contract until 2022.

Green was incredulous. Metzler still had another 16 months left on his current contract. The public was given no notice of the decision and no chance to weigh in. And as a school board member, she couldn’t tell anyone whether she felt Metzler deserved an extension or not.

“I could not tell you my opinion on his evaluation,” Green said recently. “It’s been made abundantly clear to me that I could be sued.”

The second of the three bills, House Bill 1344, would make negotiations between municipalities and unions public information.

Currently, the law allows those negotiations to occur in private, yet the resulting contracts make up the largest part of a municipal budget. At town meeting, voters have a chance to agree or reject the terms of the contract, but in some cities the exemption for negotiations has been bastardized to the point that the public can’t get any info on a contract until it’s been approved. In other words, the people who are expected to pay for the contract never get a say until after it’s a done deal.

A similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 420, is making its way through the state Senate.

The third bill, House Bill 1347, would raise the minimum requirement for information contained in meeting minutes. The law currently requires minutes to include “a brief description of the subject matter discussed and final decisions.” While most towns offer detailed minutes of their meetings, others offer scant specifics, leaving the public with little insight into the decisions of their elected officials.

It would require minutes to include the “names of the members who made or seconded each motion.” It also says “the substance, in brief, of comments made during deliberations shall be recorded in the minutes.”

The NHMA, which is funded by tax dollars in the form of member dues, wants each of these three bills killed. Just to be clear, the association italicized, underlined and bolded the sentence urging its members to contact state representatives to tell them to “kill” the bills.

“The House Judiciary Committee, in a series of close votes, has recommended passage of three Right-to-Know Law bills, each one worse than the last,” the association declared.

HB1323, the employee evaluations bill, was deemed “the worst of the three bills” and would create a chill on quality candidates applying to be a major municipal manager, the municipal association argued.

“What police chief or town administrator will consider applying for a job in a neighboring town if he knows the public, including his current employer, will be reading about it in the meeting minutes or, quite possibly, in the local newspaper?” the association posed in a series of rhetorical questions.

HB 1344, the effort to disclose union negotiations, might seem like a good idea, but it’s not, the NHMA said.

“If public bodies and union representatives are required to negotiate in public, it is entirely predictable that each side will play to its supporters in the audience, leading to a hardening of positions that will delay agreement,” NHMA wrote in its bulletin.

Or worse, the association warned, if negotiations were held in open, unions would stack the meeting room with their supporters and elected officials could bow under the pressure.

Finally, HB 1347, which would expand meeting minutes, is a mere nuisance that should be shot down. Adding the “persnickety requirement” of listing who made and seconded a motion is unhelpful, the association said.

“Minute takers have enough trouble keeping up with what actually matters,” it stated.

All three of these bills are expected to be voted on in the House on Tuesday.

(Jonathan Van Fleet can be reached at 369-3303, jvanfleet@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @CMonitor_JVF.)