Opinion: How much access to government should citizens have?


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Published: 04-03-2024 7:00 AM

Allan Herschlag lives in Concord.

Two issues caught my attention recently. Both concern your right to know what government is doing. One can limit your access to government records, making them difficult to access unless you can afford to pay for them. The second issue concerns when the public should have access to a meeting of public officials.

For too many legislative sessions there have been bills proposed that would limit your right to know under RSA 91-A. Many of them would have limited your access by placing a fee on requests for public records.

The most recent attempt to limit your right to know is HB 1002. I believe that even in its amended form it violates the intent of our state’s constitution. Part 1 Article 8 states, in part “the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted…”

So what is the meaning of “unreasonably restricted?” Does it allow as defined in RSA 91-A that some government records are not in the purview of the public? A non-public meeting, a meeting between a governing body and their lawyer, the negotiations of a real estate deal. But even these issues have limitations.

Or does “unreasonably restricted” include how many requests an individual makes and the cost to the government agency? That’s what the amended version of HB 1002 defines. Ask for information too many times and you pay.

However, in section IX of HB 1002, there is a carve out for indigent people and the media. This ploy has been tried before, but in the past also included lawyers. I don’t believe the state’s constitution intended our access to government records to be determined by the economic class or professions citizens of New Hampshire belong to.

The amended version of HB 1002 may sound reasonable by defining more than 250 requests as the threshold for charging fees of up to $1 per request, but it is neither the number of requests nor the fee that determines reasonableness. The determinant should be, does HB 1002 meet the requirements of our state’s constitution?

If you believe as I do, that government records are public records, then I believe that HB 1002 unreasonably restricts your access.

The second issue concerns a recent meeting of a dozen of our state’s mayors in Manchester. Apparently, they have met twice in person and a number of other times on Zoom.

The most recent meeting was held in Manchester at the Chamber of Commerce. And while there was an opportunity for the press to question participants, that came after the closed door meeting that barred the public from listening to the mayors’ discussions.

There is no requirement that a meeting of this nature needs to be open to the public. But wouldn’t it be refreshing to be able to hear government leaders discuss the issues that impact our communities rather than having that information massaged for a post-press Q&A?

I think it is important community leaders are meeting, discussing and sharing ideas and information to seek solutions for the many issues impacting our communities. But shouldn’t we all be able to hear their discussions? Shouldn’t issues impacting the public, discussed by public officials be open to the public?

I hope our public officials continue to meet, and even when it isn’t required they allow the public to listen to their conversations on issues that affect all of us.