Sunshine Week: Two citizens take Merrimack Valley school district to court over suspected right-to-know violations

  • Two Salisbury residents are suing the Merrimack Valley School District alleging Right To Know law violations. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff)

  • A Right to Know lawsuit was filed against Merrimack Valley School District in January. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff)

  • Louise Andrus and Ken Ross-Raymond of Salisbury are alleging Merrimack Valley School District has violated Right To Know law and election law violations. A merits hearing, which was scheduled for Wednesday in Merrimack Superior Court, was postponed until May. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff)

  • Louise Andrus and Ken Ross-Raymond of Salisbury are alleging Merrimack Valley School District has violated Right To Know law and election law violations. A merits hearing, which was scheduled for Wednesday in Merrimack Superior Court, was postponed until May. (ELODIE REED/ Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Thursday, March 17, 2016
For years, Salisbury resident Louise Andrus and Selectman Ken Ross-Raymond have suspected Merrimack Valley School District officials of violating right-to-know laws. Now, they’re asking a judge to agree.

The two had to learn how to file suit in Merrimack County Superior Court, pay court filing costs and withstand criticism within the community. And, Ross-Raymond said by phone Wednesday, that was all done outside of their own full-time work. He noted that the school board has taxpayer-funded legal representation.

“That seems so unfair to me,” he said.

While attorneys are at the board’s disposal, there’s also a fair amount of work on the part of school district staff. SAU 46 Superintendent Mark MacLean said requests from Andrus and Ross-Raymond for documents dating back more than a decade – which were later included in their complaint – required some digging.

“It’s been a significant amount of time,” MacLean said Wednesday. But, he added, that’s part of his and other school administrators’ job. “We’re not hiding anything.”

He said most right-to-know requests often are beneficial to the school district in considering its conduct.

“We want information from this office to be as transparent as possible,” MacLean said.

The issue

Andrus and Ross-Raymond aren’t necessarily as worried about having access to documents as they are about having their school board be open with how it conducts business. They included more than 100 pages of documentation in the suit they filed in January, laid out in six complaints.

Among the documents are school board meeting minutes from July 13, 2015, in which Andrus cited the state’s right-to-know statute and asked school board members to speak up due to it being difficult to hear the board’s conversation in the Merrimack Valley High School auditorium.

Also noted in March 11, 2013, minutes was a board motion to appoint Salisbury school board member Seelye Longnecker by ballot, as opposed to voice vote. May 10, 2004, nonpublic meeting minutes show current moderator Charles Niebling of Boscawen was appointed to the school board. The vote was taken during the nonpublic session.

Other nonpublic school board meeting minutes from 2004, 2003, 2000 and 1999 detail discussion about items that include principal searches, town revenue decreases and a policy handbook among other things. In those nonpublic meeting minutes are more motions to appoint people to school board positions.

Both Andrus and Ross-Raymond have voiced their concerns at school board meetings and in complaints to the attorney general’s office in the past. While Andrus’s letters to the attorney general successfully resulted in two cease-and-desist letters last year regarding election law violations – polling hours that were too short and electioneering by Longnecker for handing out campaign materials within the polling place – she didn’t make any headway with her suspected right-to-know violations.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Labontee wrote in his letter to her that submitting a petition to superior court was the action available to her on those issues.

The suit

Andrus filed the complaint with the help of Ross-Raymond, but the process hasn’t been straightforward. A hearing on the merits of their case, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed until May following several motions that essentially forced the two Salisbury residents to redo their paperwork.

David Taylor, vice president of Right to Know New Hampshire – a group that helps citizens hold government accountable – said Wednesday that legal snags are common in citizen-instigated cases, which are often conducted without legal representation.

“Each piece of the process you sort of learn by discovery, bumbling through it,” Taylor said. “It’s a brutal process.”

Andrus declined to be interviewed by the Monitor due to the ongoing case, but Ross-Raymond said Wednesday that they’ve worked on the case for three or four months now. He said they both decided not to seek out an attorney, even one paid for by the town of Salisbury, in order to save taxpayers the expense.

Otherwise, Andrus and Ross-Raymond have footed the $250 initial court filing fee thus far, and they’ve also dealt with the fallout from controversy within their community.

“It’s just talk around,” Ross-Raymond said.

In court, the school district challenged their complaint and filed a motion to dismiss March 2. In that motion, the school district claimed that the Salisbury residents’ original, 160-page complaint “utterly fails to state any claim upon which this court could grant legal relief.”

The document continues that they “have submitted what is essentially an eleven page narrative with over one hundred fifty pages of attachments and labeled it a ‘complaint.’ ”

The school district legal costs to fight the suit continue to mount. But MacLean said he wasn’t tracking the expenses and didn’t immediately know how much had been spent.

Andrus and Ross-Raymond aren’t giving up yet. They responded last week by filing a new four-page petition that includes two complaints: the school board has violated right-to-know laws by speaking inaudibly and conducting open business in nonpublic sessions; and Longnecker influenced voters by electioneering in 2015, and Andrus – the other Salisbury candidate – wasn’t afforded a fair and free election.

The two are requesting the court to find that the school board violated right-to-know laws, issue an order that compels it to comply and invalidate the election of Longnecker.

The merits hearing was rescheduled to May 11 in order to give the school board’s legal team time to respond to the amended petition. An objection motion is expected later this month, according to court documents.

In the end, Taylor – who has provided help to Andrus and Ross-Raymond – said in cases like this, it’s usually worth the work of private citizens when the outcome is in their favor. It can change community perceptions, influence how elections are determined, and ultimately improve government-resident relations, he said.

“It certainly is better to win than lose,” he said.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

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