RTKNH receives First Amendment Award

We couldn’t be more proud.  On Thursday night, October 5, 2017, the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications awarded Right to Know NH its First Amendment Award. The award is given annually by the school to those who have “gone above and beyond to uphold” First Amendment Freedoms.

1sr amendment award group

RTKNH, including founding members and officers Harriet Cady, David Saad and David Taylor were honored at a gala at the Palace Theatre in Manchester for its work in advancing the public’s right to know in New Hampshire.

A 5 minute video about RTKNH was shown at the award ceremony followed by a speech by David Saad,  RTKNH president.

The keynote speaker was Garrison Keillor, creator and star of “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show, who spoke of everyday threats to our First Amendment rights, not least of which is our own indifference and reluctance to act.

Since it began in 2013, Right to Know NH has been devoted to strengthening the Right to Know law in New Hampshire.  Through legislative action, education outreach and mentoring citizens in obtaining public information, the grass roots organization has grown to become a notable advocate for open government in the state.

We are honored to be recognized by the Nackey S. Loeb School and are delighted that attorney and First Amendment specialist, Greg Sullivan, was also recognized with the school’s Pen and Quill award.

The Nackey  S. Loeb School of Communications’ mission is to “promote understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment and to foster interest, integrity and excellence in journalism and communication.”

Articles by the Union Leader and Concord Monitor provide more information.

 

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House to vote on Ombudsman Bill. SB555 will save the taxpayers money and level the playing field for complaint resolutions

The Full House will be voting on SB 555 this thursday (4/26).

Please contact your Legislator NOW and ask them to support SB 555.  For details on why you should support SB 555 click here.

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

The 13 member study commission unanimously agreed that Citizens needs an Ombudsman.

The Senate agreed that Citizens needs an Ombudsman and voted to pass SB 555.
The House Judiciary Committee also agreed that citizens need an Ombudsman.

Since there was a Fiscal Note on the Bill requiring an appropriation of $48,000 for the Ombudsman, the House Finance Committee recently voted the Bill Inexpedient to Legislate.
The House Finance Committee did not consider all of the savings which would more than offset the cost for an Ombudsman.

While hiring an ombudsman is an added expense, there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to the taxpayers.  By avoiding litigation, municipalities and state agencies will often be spared significant legal fees.  For example, in the Superior Court case of Porter v. Town of Sandwich, Porter was awarded over $200,000 in attorney fees and the town had to pay their own legal fees too.  Recently, the town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.  Regardless of who wins the lawsuit, there are always significant legal fees which are passed on to the taxpayers.

Either way, taxpayers are going to pay for resolving Right to Know grievances.  $48,000 for an Ombudsman now will yield more than $48,000 in avoided litigation costs later.

In New Hampshire, the deck is stacked against the citizen.  While on paper it appears that the Right to Law provides for open and transparent government.  Enforcement of this law falls squarely on the back of the individual citizen who is engaged, cares, and has the financial and emotional capital to take their government to court to enforce their right to know.  Most citizens simply do not have the time or money to fight for themselves and their fellow citizens.  Public officials know this and use this barrier to their advantage as they violate the rights of all citizens.  For each Right to Know petition filed in court there are many more violations which are not pursued by citizens because they cannot afford to do so.  And when a citizen does go to court, public officials use the deep pockets of taxpayer funding to fight against the very taxpayers who are paying the legal fees.

SB 555 creates a level playing field when an alleged right to know violation has occurred.  With the ombudman, citizen complaints will be resolved out of court by an independent arbiter.  This alternate resolution process will allow for ALL citizens, regardless of their financial means, to enforce their right to know.

Please contact your Legislator NOW and ask them to pass SB 555.

NH Right to Know Articles of Interest

House passes SB 555 which creates an alternate RTK grievance resolution process

SB 555 has been passed by the House of Representatives.  As there is a Fiscal Note on this bill, the bill now goes to the committee on Finance.

RTKNH supports this bill.  Here are some reasons why.

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

 

 

 

 

 

House to vote on SB 555 which creates an alternate RTK grievance resolution process

SB 555 will be voted on by the House of Representatives Thursday 4/12/2018.  This bill creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial Right to Know (RSA 91-A) grievance resolution process for all parties.

RTKNH supports this bill.  Here are some reasons why.

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

The 13 member study commission unanimously agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman.

The Senate agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman and voted to pass SB 555.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-2 in favor of this bill.

SB 555 is before the House for a vote this Thursday.

Please contact your State Representative and ask them to support SB 555.

 

 

SB 555 which creates an alternate RTK grievance resolution process; before the House Judiciary Committee

SB 555 will be before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday 3/27/2018 @ 10am LOB Room 208.  This bill which creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial Right to Know (RSA 91-A) grievance resolution process for all parties.

RTKNH supports this bill.  Here are some reasons why.

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

The 13 member study commission unanimously agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman.

The Senate agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman and voted to pass SB 555.

Now SB 555 is before the House Judiciary Committee for a vote.

 

Please contact your Legislator and ask them to support SB 555.

 

 

SB 555 Will Establish an Alternative Grievance Resolution Process for Right to Know Complaints

By: David Saad

New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law is meant to provide transparency and accountability in our government, but citizens often run into roadblocks attempting to get state and local agencies to live up to the letter and spirit of the law.

Many times, documents are withheld from disclosure, often without any detailed explanation. Public bodies and agencies also tend to err on the side of nondisclosure in matters which involve privacy or confidentiality of others. Citizens frequently feel documents are inappropriately withheld and there’s little recourse outside of expensive and intimidating litigation.

The Center for Public Integrity in 2015 evaluated the freedom of information laws of all 50 states as part of its State Integrity Investigation. In public access to information, New Hampshire earned an F grade and ranked 49 out of all 50 states.

Worse, when it comes to the appeals process, the center gave New Hampshire a score of zero. The Right to Know Law, also known as RSA 91-A, requires all appeals to be made using the judicial system and there is a high bar for the recovery of attorney fees and other costs.

This all comes as little surprise to right-to-know advocates in the state. In New Hampshire, the burden to resolve public record and open meeting disputes is nearly entirely on the citizen. Fortunately, there may be help on its way.

Last year, House Bill 178 established a 13-member commission to study ways to resolve public record and open meeting complaints as well as to reduce the cost of appeals for citizens, courts, municipalities and state agencies. After two months of meetings, the commission — whose members include a variety of different stakeholders, myself one of them — recommended establishing an independent ombudsman to be overseen by a new Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission.

Senate Bill 555, implements this recommendation. Senate Bill 555 was passed by the Senate and is now before the House.

An ombudsman will create a new and faster path to resolve Right to Know Law disputes. Citizens will have the option to either petition the superior court or file a signed, written complaint with a new ombudsman’s office. The ombudsman will process the complaint, acquire and review documents, and conduct interviews if necessary. He or she will determine if there has been a violation of RSA 91-A and issue a ruling within 30 days.

The ombudsman can order a remedy for a violation just as a court now can. Remedies would include providing the public access to meetings and compelling the disclosure of records. Either party may appeal the ombudsman’s ruling to superior court. Rulings not appealed may be registered in court as judgements to be enforced through the court.

If established, an ombudsman will help to:

• Achieve a resolution, in many cases, without involving the courts. This will result in a reduction of court-related costs.

• Further level the playing field so all citizens can pursue their rights under the Right to Know Law without hiring an attorney.

• Reduce costs incurred by citizens, resulting in more opportunity to resolve Right to Know Law grievances.

• Streamline the resolution process greatly and reduce the time to achieve an outcome.

While hiring an ombudsman and establishing a new office is an added expense, there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to taxpayers. By avoiding litigation, municipalities and state agencies will often be spared court costs and attorney fees. In the recently settled case Porter v. Town of Sandwich, for example, the town paid more than $200,000 in attorney fees to the plaintiff, in addition paying the legal fees it incurred itself.  Recently several State Representatives were forced to file a lawsuit in Court against the Coakley Landfill Group because that group failed to provide documents requested under the Right-to-Know Law.  Again, tax dollars will be spent on legal fees to resolve this complaint while citizens continue to be left without the transparency in government which is their right.

In addition, the Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission will:

  • Establish policies and procedures for the Appeals process
  • Improve right-to-know educational materials to increase compliance
  • Report annually to the legislature with a summary of complaints filed and recommendations for future changes to the law

To maintain trust between the people and their government, the establishment of an ombudsman and citizen commission will be indispensable. They will help protect the right of citizens to access government records and to receive advance notice of open meetings, among many other rights afforded by RSA 91-A.

Senate Bill 555 has bipartisan support but representatives need to hear from you. Please contact your New Hampshire Representatives and ask them to make resolving right-to-know disputes faster, cheaper and easier for all citizens.

David Saad is president of Right to Know NH.