House Bill 103 to establish an Ombudsman violates Study Commission recommendations

Author: David Saad, RTKNH President

Last year, SB 555 was drafted in response to the recommendations of the 13 member Legislative Right-to-Know(RTK) Study Commission created by the passage of HB 178.  I was one of the 13 members on the Study Commission.  I was also one of the members tasked with writing the Final Report published by the Study Commission and I contributed to the drafting of SB 555.

After 2 months of meetings, the study commission unanimously agreed that citizens needed a grievance resolution process which is easier, cheaper, faster and results in less cost for all parties.  Establishing an independent Ombudsman and a Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission was the recommendation after considering a number of alternatives.

While HB 103 includes some of the original language of SB 555, the bill includes many changes which violate the recommendations of the commission.   Specifically, this bill:

  • Adds a $300 fee to file a complaint with the Ombudsman and removes the language that citizen’s initiated appeals shall have no filing fee or surcharge. The Study Commission recognized the need to ‘provide the public with an easier, less expensive… process to resolve complaints’.  The $300 fee is higher than the cost to file a petition in court so it more expensive not less expensive.  Any fees should be nominal since many times the citizen is fighting to prove a RTK violation which is a violation against all citizens and in the public interest.
  • Eliminates citizen oversight of the Ombudsman. The Study Commission agreed that the Ombudsman should be established with oversight by a citizen’s Right-to-Know Appeals commission. The Right-to-Know Appeals commission would serve a critical role which includes establishing policies and procedures for the Appeals process and educating interested parties on the Right-to-Know Law to increase awareness, compliance, and minimize future violations.  They will also compile statistics and make recommendations to the legislature concerning proposed changes to the law.
  • Attaches the ombudsman to the department of justice. The Study Commission spent a great deal of time deliberating on the need for the utmost need for impartially by the Ombudsman.  The study commission believed the Attorney General’s Office would not be a viable option since the Attorney General’s Office represents state agencies in Chapter 91-A disputes and the Attorney General’s Office itself is the recipient of many right-to-know requests which would be a conflict of interest.  For these reasons, and out of concern for citizen’s perceptions, the study commission determined the Attorney General’s Office may have difficulty performing the impartial role of grievance resolution.

RTKNH strongly supports the need for an ombudsman to handle Right-to-Know complaints, however, we oppose HB 103 because it goes against several of the recommendations of the Study Commission.