HB 1579 Testimony

David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1579.

I am David K. Taylor of Durham, New Hampshire. I served for 12 years on the Oyster River School Board and still serve on the Oyster River Long Range Planning Committee. I have been an advocate for open government for the past several years. I write in support of HB 1579.

To help you understand why I think this bill is so important, let me take you back a few years in the Oyster River School District. The community had just finished an extensive process to select a new high school principal. The superintendent recommended the candidate to the school board, but the board turned him down. The community erupted. 300 people, mostly parents, signed a petition. Hundreds attended board meetings so they had to be held in the auditorium. About 500 students staged a walkout that was reported by the Associated Press worldwide.

The board then decided to terminate the superintendent. But, they didn’t want another eruption, so they went underground. The chief mechanism they used was consultation with legal counsel. Because with this exemption there is no notice and no minutes. There is no trace of a meeting. They abused this exemption by deliberating well beyond legal advice, but it gave them cover for meeting as a board completely off the record. No one knew about their plan until it was done.

But, how they did it violated the Right-to-Know Law as a judge ruled months later and at a cost of $60,000. The judge also noted that they could have acted legally if they had just held nonpublic meetings instead of consultations with legal counsel. But, a non-public meeting, even with sealed minutes, would have had public notice so the attentive public could have known something was up. A risk they weren’t willing to take.

This bill would have avoided the Right-to-Know violations in Oyster River because even those consultations with legal counsel would have had a public record. There would not have been any incentive to use that exemption to the point of abuse just because it had no record.

Since then, the Oyster River School Board has adopted a policy that was the model for this bill.  They have followed it and it is not a burden. The record is after the fact so there is no delay or notice. There are no minutes to expose confidential information. Just a public record that they met and the legal exemption. It couldn’t be simpler, but it will have a big impact.

Oyster River is not alone. The total secrecy of consultation with legal counsel has lead to violations in Marlborough, Antrim and Madison in recent years.  Please plug this gaping hole in RSA 91-A by reporting that HB 1579 ought to pass.

 

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