David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, appeared at the House Judiciary Committee hearing and testified in support of HB 178.
Here is his testimony:
Honorable Members of the House Judiciary Committee
Thank you very much for allowing me to testify on bill HB178 today. I support this bill. I am David Taylor of Durham and I served for 12 years on the Oyster River School Board. I also have successfully enforced violations of the Right-to-Know Law 4 times in the courts, pro se. I have experienced the Right-to-Know Law from both sides, if you will.
New Hampshire is failing the Right to Know. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity gave New Hampshire the second lowest grade, only Wyoming did worse, on Public Access to Information. 49th out of 50. An F. A key factor in that was “the lack of any formal mechanism for appealing agencies rebuff [of] information requests. In such cases, a citizen’s only recourse is the court system.”
We can do better.
It is a big step to go from a Right-to-Know complaint to a lawsuit. And, it is expensive, for everyone involved. My first case cost me over $4,000 and cost the school district almost $60,000. That’s a lot of money, and just for one case. There are over 20 Right-to-Know cases a year on average. But, ironically, lawyers don’t make a lot of money with Right-to-Know cases compared to others, so they require around $5,000 up front to take a case. Most people can’t afford that out of pocket.
We can do better.
Each of the 50 states and the federal government has some form of the Right-to-Know Law. Each of them has their own way to resolve complaints. While all states I know of rely on the courts in the end, there is a lot of variation between a complaint and going to court. For example, there could be a process for the public body to investigate and report on a complaint without involving anyone else. Or, the public body could have someone independent investigate and report. The county attorneys or attorney general could have that job. Or, some other state official such as an ethics office. A court could appoint a master. We could have a commission to hear Right-to-Know complaints similar to other commissions we have already in New Hampshire. There are lots of options, with plusses and minuses, that we need to study and weigh.
While there are lots of options to resolve complaints, I encourage you to limit the scope of this study commission to resolving complaints. To broaden the scope would likely open a can of worms. There are a lot of competing interests around the Right to Know. Reducing the cost of resolving complaints is a common ground where everyone can win. The study commission has only a few months to study the options and make a recommendation. Broadening the scope, for example by tasking the commission to handle other bills pending this year, could put the commission at risk of not being able to complete its work and address this important problem.
Right to Know is a balance between the people and our government. It is how the people hold the government accountable. The membership of this study commission reflects this balance. About half of the members represent the government at different levels, making sure each has a voice. The other half represents the people, with the people breaking the tie. Any recommendations of the commission will then go through the legislature and governor, maintaining a close balance.
The Municipal Association wants another seat at the table, even though they already have a voice on the commission. This would upset the balance, displacing some other voice to amplify theirs. Perhaps the NHMA should be able to select their representative instead of the governor. But, it would be a mistake to give them another seat.
Thank you again for allowing me to testify today on HB178 and I hope you will vote that this bill ought to pass.