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State government should make public records more accessible

During budget talks last week with Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan and members of the Legislature, Attorney General Michael Delaney bemoaned the cost borne by his office for fulfilling requests under the state’s Right-to-Know law.

According to Delaney, his office spent nearly $400,000 and nearly 4,000 hours over the last two years meeting the demands of RSA 91:a.

“We need to make this information available to the public, but the cost to produce government records about actions taken in the past is materially undermining our ability to perform current functions,” Delaney later said, according to the Nashua Telegraph.

While we don’t believe there is any singularly bright idea to alleviate all this cost and time, we do have some suggestions.

Public officials – at any level – should start with the assumption that anything they do, say or write is subject to full disclosure.

Don’t try to flirt with exceptions in the Right-to-Know law. Don’t try to mix one part legal matters with nine parts budget talks and claim the privilege of closing the doors to the public. And when there are potential legal matters involved, don’t assume that just because there is an exclusion available under RSA 91:a that it should be used. Right-to-Know exceptions should be last-resort options.

Put another way, assume when challenged in court that you – the public official or board – will lose.

Such was the case as David Taylor challenged the Oyster River School Board over how it went about replacing top school district administrators. Taylor won not only once but twice. And on one of those occasions the court ordered that he be reimbursed for attorney’s fees – a rare event that only occurs under egregious circumstances.

If Delaney is going to get one more red penny from state coffers, it should be to modernize computer systems to make state records more available to the public. Many Right-to-Know requests could be short-stopped by putting records online and making them searchable with 21st-century computer upgrades.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen with a paternalistic, we-know-better-than-the public view of the Right-to-Know law.

Somehow, Delaney needs to inculcate into the heads of public agencies throughout the state the meaning and intent of RSA 91: a, which begins with these words:

“Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”

These words must be taken to heart by those who serve the public trust, not dissected and examined under a microscope for fissures and cracks in which to hide information. And, while we greatly appreciate the many improvements made in recent years to the Right-to-Know law, we would like to see more teeth put in the mouth of RSA 91:a so that fewer and fewer public officials will even attempt to keep information from public view.

It is high time those who violate the Right-to-Know law stand to lose their jobs and potentially be faced with paying court costs and penalties out of their own pockets.

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