THIS BLOG POST IS ONE OF SEVERAL GUEST EDITORIALS THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED DURING SUNSHINE WEEK, HIGHLIGHTING THE NEED FOR MORE GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY.
Author: Donna Green
Green v. SAU 55 et al lawsuit
In April 2016, just a week after my 60th birthday, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled unanimously in my favor: public bodies must provide public information in electronic form if it is requested and if it so exists.
This was a big win for open government (and 60 being the new 50). I can’t thank enough my colleagues at Right to Know NH and friends of that organization for the invaluable help they gave me in drafting my first pro se submission to Superior Court.
Unfortunately I lost that case in the lower court when Judge David Anderson ruled that RSA 91-A permits governmental entities the choice of providing requested information in paper or electronic form. This ruling condemned conscientious elected officials like myself, curious citizens and journalists, young and old, to the most inconvenient, expensive, and often least useful form of public information. My husband, Arthur, and I could not let this ruling stand unchallenged.
This is where the hero of our story enters. Attorney Rick Lehmann, now of Lehmann Law Office in Manchester, agreed to appeal my case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are captured on video and archived on the court’s website. At the risk of sounding like a doting grandmother, which regretfully I am not, the arguments and the judges’ comments were extremely interesting. You can the video here: http://www.courts.nh.gov/cstream/index.asp 2015-0274 (January 7, 2016)
Mr. Lehmann skillfully wrung a victory out of a pro se brief, to the great relief and celebration of those who understand how important it is for citizens to know what their government is doing.
My case was against School Administrative Unit 55 and the Timberlane Regional School Board. I was at that time and continue to be a sitting school board member in that district. Yes, I sued my own board, which made me about as popular as used gym socks in July. Unfortunately I am once again suing my own board and SAU, this time for detailed disclosure of their default budget. My popularity on the board is now neck and neck with advanced leprosy.
The trouble is that winning court battles doesn’t solve all problems. The day the Supreme Court decision was released, SAU55 announced that they would now provide information in electronic form only if the requestor provided a thumb drive in its unopened original packaging. Thumb drives are cheap when ordered in bulk but when they are individually packaged, they run about $7.50 each. This means every Right to Know request for electronic documents will cost $7.50 regardless of the number of pages or size of file. These drives must be picked up from the SAU office during their restrictive hours of 8:30 to 4. No mail. No email. No posting to a public website.
Due to my enduring popularity, my school district will not answer any of my questions. I am forced to resort to Right to Know requests regularly in order to discharge my elected duties as I see fit. Soon I’ll own more thumb drives than digits lost to leprosy.
My SAU has recently distinguished itself by claiming that it cannot provide emails in electronic form since emails must be printed to be responsive to the Right to Know request. Fifty cents a page, please!
They are not alone. In “Town of Tuftonboro vs Maxim A.A.L. Blowen-Ledoux and Robert McWhirter” #212-2016-CV-0021, Tuftonboro selectmen argue that they should be paid 25 cent a page for paper copies of emails since emails, they say, have to be printed to be redacted.
With the average age of NH state legislators being 66 years old, legislators cannot ever catch up to those who have no will to follow the spirit of the law. Your voice, your action and your insistence that elected officials embrace transparency is what ultimately protect your rights.
Donna Green was awarded the Nackey Loeb First Amendment Award, and the New England First Amendment Coalition’s Antonia Orfield award in recognition of Richard Lehmann’s NH Supreme Court victory in Green v. SAU 55 et al. You can learn more about the case: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpL91oPJ2Aw
Donna Green is a member of Right to Know New Hampshire, President of the School District Governance Association of NH and a resident of Sandown. Donna Green can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org