N.H. bill creating right-to-know appeals process passes House

Monitor staff
Friday, April 13, 2018

A bill to create a right-to-know ombudsman and citizens’ commission received initial approval in the House Thursday, advancing an effort that supporters say will make it easier to resolve disputes over records requests.

Senate Bill 555 would establish an office of an ombudsman, appointed by the governor and executive councilors, who could help adjudicate conflicts between citizens and entities seeking documents and public officials.

The new office would give citizens an alternative venue to challenge the denial of records requests. Currently, that requires a hearing in Superior Court, a process that carries legal costs and that supporters of the law argue can drive away would-be litigants. The new office would accept citizen complaints, notify the public body, and issue a ruling within 30 days.

The ombudsman would have broad powers, able to compel the delivery of records, interviews with parties and ultimately order the disclosure of records. Any of the office’s findings could be then appealed through the court process.

Under the proposed law, the appointed official must be a member of the New Hampshire bar with at least 10 years of legal experience.

SB 555 would also create a citizens’ appeals commission, comprising a supreme court justice, the secretary of state, legislators and 10 citizen members, responsible for the creation of rules for the new office and any recommendations.

The bill, born out of the recommendations of a study commission last year, narrowly passed the Senate last month, after Democrats objected to what they said was an unnecessary cost and bureaucratic expanse.

But on Thursday it passed the House more easily, sailing through by voice vote and heading to the House Finance committee for review before a final floor vote.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)