Right to Know – a public official’s perspective

We wrap up Sunshine week with a guest editorial from Todd Selig, administrator for the town of Durham NH.  Mr. Selig took part in the Sunshine Week panel discussion at the Nackey Loeb Center last monday.  He made these comments to those in attendance.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776.

The Declaration continues with a long list of grievances against the King …

“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”

This is clearly the nexus of the Right to Know Law, the rules surrounding meetings and public records.

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” 

An illustration of why public wages and benefits are available for public disclosure!

“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

I am probably one of the few “swarms of Officers” presently in a position to harass our people, at least in Durham, but in all honesty, the work I do, and the the work our local elected and appointed officials undertake, is typically not intended to “eat out people’s substance,” but rather to serve our communities, our cemetery trustees, our parks & recreation commissions, our county, or our state, and a long list of other boards, committees, and commissions from 234 towns and cities across NH.

But how do we know that?  How do we know that our officials are in fact doing the public’s business?  The answer lies in the Right-to-Know Law, a statutory framework that ensures that what government does, and more precisely what our government officials do, is done in public, in the light of day, for all to see and understand.

I would argue that the vast majority of elected and appointed officials get involved with government because they care, they want to make a positive difference, and they want to serve their communities in useful ways.

So we have two juxtaposing concepts in play here.  On one hand, we have people getting involved to largely do what they perceive to be good for community.  On the other, we want to ensure that the work those individuals are doing is ultimately accountable to the very people they serve.

The thread that holds this together in balance is RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law.

So some practical thoughts in light of the above:

  1. It has been my experience that most people who get involved in government at the local level have little understanding of the Right-to-Know Law.  They often in fact come from the private sector where information is viewed as proprietary, rather than public.  Operating in public is not necessarily native to them — and it may in fact feel threatening.  What if people don’t like my ideas?  What if I say something that upsets my neighbors?  Wouldn’t working things out in private behind closed doors be a lot easier and more comfortable?  These folks need education, constant reminders, and guidance in terms of understanding and following the laws they have sworn to uphold.  It’s a constant educational process and we all play a part in making sure these well-meaning individuals receive the guidance they need.
  2. Most of the time, if you want information, just ask for it.  Talk with the person who you believe has information and let them know what you are looking for.  This may save you and them a lot of time, effort, and aggravation.
  3. Don’t automatically assume the official you are working with is corrupt, dishonest, or immoral.  Most officials really intend to do well, and when they receive an RSA 91-A request, it is intimidating for them, and not only for you!
  4. It may very well be wrong to conclude that officials who fail to properly post a meeting, make minutes available, or who are engaging in illegal communication outside of a public meeting are knowingly doing so.  Nine out of ten times, I find that it is because the officials are improperly educated in the laws, or were never educated concerning them.
  5. When you do find an RSA 91-A violation, make it plain to those involved.  Hold them accountable, but do so with dignity and respect. Make it a learning moment for all involved!   We want to encourage participation by citizens, not discourage it by making the process so threatening that only special interests — whatever those might be — become involved.
  6. Only when the officials involved warrant being treated as untrustworthy, should you conclude that they are.  And if you do so conclude, RSA 91-A gives some very good ammunition to hold those persons accountable.

In closing, Robert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  RSA 91-a is the vehicle we have crafted to keep the proverbial barbarians of secrecy, collusion, personal gain, and general bad behavior at the gate to ensure governmental officials remain accountable to those they serve.

Todd Selig can be reached at tselig@ci.durham.nh.us