By David Saad
Last Year HB 178 passed which established a 13 member commission to study alternative processes to resolve right-to-know complaints with the goal of:
- reducing the burden and costs of RTK complaints for
- Public agencies & bodies
- Increasing awareness and compliance with the law to minimize violations
After several months of meetings, the 13 member Study Commission found that citizens need a grievance resolution process which is easier, cheaper, faster and results in less cost for all parties while also maintaining independence, credibility, impartiality, and minimizing any political influence.To view the Commission’s findings click here.
The 13 member Study Commission unanimously recommended that an independent Ombudsman with oversight by a Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission be established.
This legislative session, SB 555 was introduced to enact the Study Commission’s recommendations.
SB 555 provides Citizens with an easier, cheaper, and faster option for resolving Right to Know grievances. If SB 555 is enacted, citizens will have the option to either
- petition the Superior Court (current process allowed by law) or
- file a signed, written complaint with the office of the Ombudsman (per SB 555)
If a complaint is filed, the Ombudsman will process the complaint:
- acquire and review documents
- conduct interviews if necessary
- issue ruling within 30 days
- If there is a violation, ruling can include any remedy to same extent as provided by the court
Either party may appeal the Ombudsman’s ruling to Superior Court.
Rulings not appealed may be registered in Court as a judgement.
SB 555 was voted Ought to Pass by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The vote was 5-0. Since there was a Fiscal Note on the Bill requiring an appropriation of $48,000 for the Ombudsman, the Senate Finance Committee yesterday voted the Bill Inexpedient to Legislate. The Full Senate will vote on the bill Thursday March 15th.
While hiring an ombudsman and establishing a new office is an added expense, there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to the taxpayers. By avoiding litigation, municipalities and state agencies will often be spared court costs and attorney fees. For example, in the Superior Court case of Porter v. Town of Sandwich, Porter was awarded over $200,000 in attorney fees and the town had to pay their own legal fees too. Recently, the town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.
Either way, taxpayers are going to pay for resolving Right to Know violations. I think $48,000 for an Ombudsman now will yield more than $48,000 in avoided litigation costs later.
Please contact your Legislator TODAY and ask them to support SB 555.
David Saad is the President of Right to Know New Hampshire and a resident of Rumney. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org