Editorial: In search of transparency in Concord

Published: 4/4/2019 12:05:03 AM

A few weeks back, voters across New Hampshire packed meeting houses and town halls to decide on issues big and small. They were presented with loads of information, they had sometimes spirited debate and they cast their votes. In every instance, these prudent, small-town voters knew what it would cost.

Since Concord is a city, the process is a bit different, but the fundamental role of its residents doesn’t change. Elected city councilors may do the actual voting, but proposals are made, details are explained and debates are expected.

That neat, idealistic view isn’t always the way business is done in the Capital City. When the city’s biggest union contracts come before the council, there is no public information, there is no public debate. Residents wouldn’t even know a vote is about to happen. The details emerge only after the vote is taken.

The issue has been the subject of recent reporting by the Monitor’s Caitlin Andrews, who has documented Concord’s process for dealing with union contracts and personnel costs, which account for about 75 percent of city spending.

Concord is one of three New Hampshire cities that does not give its residents the ability to review the cost of a contract prior to a city council vote.

City officials reason that since negotiations aren’t legally required to be made public, and the proposed contract could change at any time before the vote, then the whole process can be shielded from public review. That approach serves only to keep residents in the dark, and is one that most other cities in New Hampshire don’t take.

The approach may not be illegal since it’s a matter of how the city chooses to interpret the law. But it’s outside the best interests of city residents who ought to be able to know what they’re paying for before they’re made to pay for it.

More to the point, Concord residents deserve to live in a city that provides maximum transparency, not in a city that takes a limited view of open government.

If Concord wants to be transparent and keep its citizens in the loop, it can follow the lead of Lebanon, which requires three presentations and a public hearing before a contract is passed. They are looking at the same laws, and have found a way to get the public’s business done in an open way.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Monitor that Concord “should try to be as transparent as possible in order to give the public the ability to evaluate the agreement and provide insight to the board.
. . . These are serious, serious contracts that cost a lot of money, and in this instance, we’re talking taxpayers’ money. They should have a chance to voice their opinion.”

Transparency advocates are in agreement, but Concord officials so far have not committed to discussing the policy, which can be changed by city council vote. We urge Concord to find a way to bring this information to city residents well before a board vote, much in the same way the Concord School District openly discussed details about the teacher contract before giving its approval in November.

Maximum transparency, as both Concord school and union officials would likely tell you, made for some tense moments. It also allowed an opportunity for residents – vocal as they may be – to weigh in.

We appreciate that public pressure can sometimes force well-meaning elected officials to make uncomfortable choices. Concord City Councilor Mark Coen explained it to the Monitor this way: “I see the potential for a core group going to the meeting before the ratification and show disfavor one way or the other. A vocal group on either side could do that … it may not be the best thing for the employees or the taxpayers.”

To us, that type of debate sounds an awful lot like New Hampshire government at its best.

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