THIS BLOG POST IS ONE OF SEVERAL THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED DURING SUNSHINE WEEK, HIGHLIGHTING THE NEED FOR MORE GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY.
New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law protects our right to know our government’s workings, but it has a gaping weakness. The law leaves it entirely to individual citizens to enforce their right, and this enforcement can be done only through the courts. This makes New Hampshire’s law one that only the well off or the well educated can enforce on their own behalf. Occasionally. lawyers outraged by injustice will take up a case for little or no pay, but few aggrieved citizens can count on this generosity. Clearly our law needs to be fixed so that violations are easier to rectify and enforcement does not depend on ticking off the wrong well-heeled person.
Last year, Harriet Cady, a long-time Right to Know advocate in our state submitted legislation with the goal of establishing a Right to Know Commission that would hear citizen complaints and adjudicate them outside of a courtroom. The House Judiciary Committee ruled Harriet’s proposal “Inexpedient to Legislate.” Mrs. Cady is the winner of the 2015 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award from the New England First Amendment Coalition for her advocacy of open government and freedom of information.
This year, Mrs. Cady submitted a bill asking to establish a study to look at ways of better enforcing the Right to Know Law and adjudicating disputes between public bodies and private citizens. This again was ruled “Inexpedient to Legislate.” Those of us who know how frequently the Right to Know Law is violated both accidentally and deliberately by Boards of Selectmen and school districts see this reluctance of our legislators as deeply frustrating. The need is huge.
A law that does not come with a practical mechanism for enforcement is a law that will be broken often and seriously, which is the case today. New Hampshire’s culture has changed. We used to be able to expect our public officials, elected and hired, to have the will to obey the law. Now it seems the will is to achieve goals and let the taxpayers foot the legal bill if a citizen takes issue with the method. Since few private citizens have the financial and emotional resources to fight a Right to Know issue for many months through the courts, less than transparent behavior is emboldened where it has taken root.
New Hampshire desperately needs a Right to Know Commission to free up the courts, to give teeth to the law and to help citizens enforce their right to know what their government is doing without indebting themselves to do so.
Donna Green is a member of RTKNH and also currently serves on the board of the Timberlane School District. She can be reached at RightToKnowNH@gmail.com