Open government is Good governance

Our Right-to-Know Law is failing. The Center for Public Integrity, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, evaluated the freedom of information laws of all 50 states as part of its broader 2015 State Integrity Investigation. New Hampshire ranked 49th, a mere one point ahead of Wyoming which holds the worst score.

Our government belongs to us.  Enshrined in Part 1 Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution, we have the right to know what our government is doing on our behalf.  Right to Know New Hampshire continues to fight for improvements to the Right-to-Know law (RSA 91-A) to make our government more open, more accessible, and more accountable.  I offer the following three ideas for legislative changes which would make it easier for us to exercise our right to a more open and transparent government.

First, no fees to inspect government records.  The records of our government belong to the people and a citizen should not be charged fees to look at any record.  Consider a citizen or news reporter who notices something odd like a decision of a board that came out of nowhere or an expenditure that does not seem to be in the public’s best interest. Through public records, they investigate to identify illegal decisions made by public officials or to root out public corruption. Why should the person requesting records pay fees when the records 1) already belong to the citizens, 2) they contribute to the public’s understanding of government’s activities, and 3) they inform voters of how elected officials and public employees are conducting business on our behalf?  Charging citizens a fee to access records gives public agencies the ability to construct toll booths along the information highway on route toward the truth.  Many citizens would run out of money long before they reached their destination.

A representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate.  Everyone is entitled to public information regarding the official acts and affairs of government.  Providing citizens with such information is an essential government function and should be an integral part of the routine duties of public officers and employees.  House Bill 606, which is currently being considered by the House of Representatives, makes it explicitly clear that nothing may be charged to inspect a governmental record.  I urge everyone to support passage of this bill as it would insure that inspection of our records is freely available to all.

Second, there should be a record when all public boards meet.  Public boards across the state continue to meet in complete secrecy. When boards meet with an attorney or negotiate with a union they don’t have to do any of the usual things for public meetings: they provide no public notice, the meeting is closed to the public, and no record is kept.   At the very least, a basic record should exist that states a meeting took place to provide a paper trail while still respecting confidentiality. House Bill 1417 would have outlawed the veil of secrecy that surrounds these meetings, but the billed was killed in the House.

Third, improve enforcement of the law.  A law is only as good as the enforcement mechanisms in place to insure compliance. The Right-to-Know law leaves it entirely up to individual citizens to enforce compliance, and this enforcement can be done only through the courts. For most citizens, filing a lawsuit in court is intimidating, time consuming, costly and represents a significant barrier to exercising their right to know.  It’s a long, arduous, and financial struggle in which the citizen bears the sole burden, yet when a public official or public employee diminishes government transparency by violating the law we all lose.

Attempts over the last few years to establish an independent arbiter that would hear citizen complaints and mediate them outside of a courtroom have failed to pass the legislature.  New Hampshire desperately needs an independent arbiter to free up the courts and help citizens enforce their right to know without indebting themselves in the process.

I call on all citizens, public officials, and legislators to work with Right to Know NH to put forth legislation that will bring the letter of the Right-to-Know law closer to the spirit of the law and help all citizens freely exercise their right of access to government meetings and records.

David Saad is President of Right to Know NH, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving adherence to and strengthening the Right-to-Know Law (RSA 91-A).

This article was also published in the Union Leader.