By: Bob Giuda, NH District 2 State Senator
New Hampshire ranks 49th of the 50 states in government transparency because of our existing Right-to-Know appeals process. The 13-member statutory Commission To Study Processes To Resolve Right-To-Know Complaints, after studying our process and reviewing how other states deal with their appeals, unanimously agreed that creating an Ombudsman was the most efficient way to resolve Right to Know (RTK) grievances without going to court. It would make RTK appeals faster, fairer and less costly for towns, citizens, businesses and organizations.
The Commission crafted SB555, which passed both the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee with minor amendments. The House Finance Committee, however, voted the Bill ITL.
With regard to costs, in just one RTK appeal, the town of Sandwich was ordered to pay over $200,000 in attorney fees to the citizen who appealed a RTK denial. In another case, the town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees when it lost its RTK lawsuit. The town of Deerfield has spent over $50,000 in RTK lawsuits. The Oyster River School District spent $60,000 in legal fees and lost. Regardless of who prevails in court, significant legal fees are ALWAYS passed on to local taxpayers. A state outlay of $48,000 for an Ombudsman will save our towns far more than $48,000 each year in avoided litigation costs for RTK appeals.
Testimony before the Commission clearly underscored the need for a complete redesign of the appeals process. Under current law, appellants must prove why government should release information, rather than government proving why it should not. Most citizens don’t have the time or money to appeal a denial to Superior court. Testimony proved conclusively that public officials know this and use it to knowingly skirt RTK laws. For each Right to Know petition filed in Superior court, there are many violations which are not challenged by citizens because they cannot afford to do so. This is a major structural impediment to transparency in our government.
SB 555 creates an alternative process which levels the playing field when an alleged right to know violation has occurred. With the ombudsman, most citizen complaints can be resolved out of court by an independent arbiter. This alternate resolution process will protect our citizens’ right to know, regardless of their financial means, while still protecting the due process rights of all interested parties to pursue a remedy court.
I am asking you to carefully consider the Commission’s work on SB555 and the compelling testimony of the citizens and organizations which testified before it. Please affirm our citizens’ Right to Know and support greater transparency in government by overturning the ITL on SB555 and voting Ought to Pass as Amended.
Thank you for your consideration.
NH District 2
The Full House will be voting on SB 555.
Please contact your Legislator NOW and ask them to pass SB 555.