Sunshine Week: Against long odds, N.H. right-to-know group presses on

  • Manchester Democrat Rep. Patrick Long testified in 2015 on behalf of a bill allowing public bodies to charge for the costs of retrieval of public records under the right-to-know law. House rules prohibit representatives from resurrecting a bill that was killed during the first year of the session. But Long filed a nearly identical bill this year.Photo by Jonathan Van Fleet

Monitor staff
Monday, March 14, 2016
David Saad likens fighting for right-to-know requests to be fulfilled to going through the five stages of grief.

When private citizens fight for transparency in their local and state government, that fight is often protracted, difficult and expensive. It can also get ugly at times.

“You can write a letter to the editor to maybe shine some light on it, but in many of these small towns you know that people talk . . . and all of a sudden you’re ostracized,” said Saad, a Rumney resident who serves as the president of Right to Know New Hampshire, a group fighting for greater transparency in local and state government.

New Hampshire received a D-minus from the national Center for Public Integrity for its transparency. The center found one of the state’s worst areas was public access to information, where it is ranked second-worst in the nation.

This is the arena in which Saad, group Vice President David Taylor and others are attempting to enact change, little by little.

In addition to authoring legislation to tighten the state’s right-to-know law, the group provides assistance to residents trying to prove public bodies are flouting the right-to-know.

This often happens in towns and school districts, Saad said. He is also a public official himself, serving on the Rumney planning board.

“It has to do with school board issues and the selectmen, mostly at the local level, not the state level,” he said.

This is due in part to the vast number of local officials in New Hampshire. There are thousands of local public bodies around the state when you take into account school boards, boards of selectmen and planning and zoning boards.

“It happens often enough that it’s a significant problem even if the vast majority of people are doing the right thing,” Taylor said.

Not every violation of the right-to-know law is intentional; sometimes, public officials don’t even realize they are acting in violation of the law.

“I think overall, most people serving on boards are trying to do the right thing,” Taylor said. “It’s usually when there’s some kind of a controversy, they’ll hedge it a little bit, try to avoid a controversy”

Taylor has experienced this firsthand. A former school board member in the Oyster River School District in Durham, Taylor became interested in the new board’s activities around 2011. This was the year hundreds of high school students staged a walkout after the board refused to consider a candidate for an open principal spot.

There was much more going on. Residents were coming forward with concerns the board had been meeting at the Durham police station to discuss hiring candidates for an interim superintendent spot, with no public notice of the meeting, nor minutes posted afterward.

Taylor started filing more right-to-know requests on his own and found the Oyster River School board had in fact been meeting secretly for months to discuss the buyout of their superintendent and search for an interim superintendent.

He described his own process of filing right-to-know requests and an eventual lawsuit as “brutal,” and said he made “all kinds of mistakes.” But the work paid off; eventually, a judge sided with Taylor on three separate cases.

He and Saad hope Right to Know New Hampshire can help guide residents who may not know anything about the state’s laws.

“Educating the public is part of our mission,” Saad said.

“There are so many aspects of this law that are difficult to deal with,” Taylor added. “There are so many aspects of governments it doesn’t apply to, so many exemptions, the process is so onerous.”

It also can be costly. If public officials don’t respond to right-to-know requests, the only next step is to take them to court. Residents either have to spend their own money hiring a lawyer or take the time to litigate the case themselves.

Municipalities, on the other hand, have a lawyer on retainer.

“When they get taken to court, they are not spending their own money, they are not spending their own time,” Saad said. “Public officials don’t really feel the pain of that in that way.”

Even if residents win a case, the most that can happen is for the public body to be made to pay back a person for their legal fees and be made to attend training on the right-to-know law. In rare instances, judges may tell the offender to pay a fine.

It’s often a lonely fight, and Taylor and Saad say they get discouraged from time to time.

“In many circumstances, you’re trying to correct a wrong or at least a perceived wrong, and instead of looking at it in the light of that, you’re demonized,” Saad said.

Still, Taylor says he is encouraged with the slow gains his group is making in the Legislature. In a perfect world, he’d like to see every public document be able to be inspected for free and for residents to be able to appeal right-to-know matters for free, without having to go to court.

“We’re taking small steps but we’re taking steps forward,” Taylor said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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