Members of panel, left to right: Mark Hayward, Union Leader; David K. Taylor, Right to Know NH; Greg V. Sullivan, NEFAC; Lisa English, NH Asst. AG; Hon. William Delker, Superior Court Justice; Gilles Bissonette, NH ACLU. (Steve Bolton, Nashua Attorney, not shown.) Watch the video here.
These are the remarks by David K. Taylor of Right to Know NH tonight at the Sunshine Week Panel discussion sponsored by the Nackey Loeb School and New England First Amendment Coalition.
Right to Know NH is a citizen’s group working to strengthen the Right to Know across our state. The biggest way we do that is through bills to change the Right-to-Know Law, RSA 91-A. Since we were formed in 2013, we have proposed a handful of bills each year.
Our first bill was a mess. Throughout 2013 we met monthly, going through all of RSA 91-A, word for word, proposing lots of changes. We combined the more than 20 changes into one bill, HB 1156. To our frustration, the House amended it, to throw out all our changes and replace them with a handful of changes to weaken the law. We had to work hard in the Senate to get it killed. Not a good start.
The lesson we learned that first year was to take smaller steps in a few separate bills. This strategy has been more successful.
Each year since 2014, Right to Know NH has proposed, at least in part, a few bills, and each year at least one of those bills have been signed into law. In 2015, 2 out of 3 became law. In 2016, it was 2 out of 4. In 2017, it was 4 out of 5. Last year, it was 1 out of 9. This year, we had a part in 4 bills, and all 4 are still alive.
Here are some of the new provisions in these bills that became law:
– votes to seal non-public minutes must be taken in public, (2015 HB108)
– non-public minutes have the same requirements as public minutes, (2016 HB1418)
– non-public minutes must record how each member voted on each action, (2016 HB1419)
– minutes must record who made and who seconded each motion. (2018 HB1347)
Another one of our bills that passed, encourages meeting notices and minutes to be posted consistently on the web. It only applies to those towns and agencies that already have a website and chose to use the web for this. So, we’d like it to be stronger, but it is a step forward. (2017 HB170)
One bill that passed encourages members of public bodies to help enforce the Right-to-Know Law during a meeting. This provision encourages members to object when they think the law is being violated. If they ask, this objection must be recorded in the minutes, so the public can easily see it. We actually hope that this objection would start a discussion by the public body at the meeting, leading them to fix the violation instead of continuing on. The incentive to object, is the member would not be subject to a personal fine under the law for the violation. (2017 HB460)
Another bill passed, to make it easier for citizens to enforce the Right-to-Know Law in court. A common mistake for citizens who go to court without a lawyer, is to assume that documents filed with a petition will be taken as evidence. Formally, they must ask the court to admit the evidence. This provision makes the court take these documents as evidence unless there is an objection. It effectively changes the evidence from opt in to opt out. This bill also requires a response to a petition to be filed a head of the court date. In my own case, for example, I was handed the answer as I walked into court, so I didn’t even have time to read it before the trial started. This provision makes sure that won’t happen again. (2017 HB252)
We’ve had some repeated failures, too, of course, for example: posting of agendas, notices posted more than 24 hours in advance, and, minimal records of non-meetings.
Two other bills that passed, are part of 2 long-term fights: the first deals with free inspection of records. 2015 HB138/HB606 The second seeks an alternative to going to court to enforce the Right-to-Know Law. (2017 HB178)
In 2015, we proposed a bill to make inspection of records free. (HB138) This is a fundamental goal for Right to Know NH. That year other bills sought to make electronic records free. (HB606) Our bill was combined with these others, and unfortunately, the language got muddled, and courts have since interpreted the language, differently than intended. The fight for free inspection of records continues this year. HB286 was voted to pass 20-0 out of committee and we are hoping that strong support will continue on the floor of the House and into the Senate. However, last year a similar bill, was killed in the Senate.
The big Right-to-Know bill this year is actually multiple bills, all trying to establish an ombudsman to enforce the Right-to-Know Law. This effort started back in 2014, when Harriet Cady of Right-to-Know NH proposed a grievance commission, as an alternative to going to court. This idea failed in 2014 and again in 2015. In 2016, a bill failed that called for a study commission of the idea. In 2017, another bill passed to establish that study commission. That study lead to a bill last year to establish an ombudsman. That bill failed, but lead to the multiple similar bills this year, one in the House, HB 729 and one in the Senate SB 313. Both of these bills have been amended, passed out of committee and on the floor, and are now in the Finance committees.
In the near future, I see 3 major themes for Right-to-Know bills: 1) the ombudsman, 2) bureaucratic obstacles to records, and 3) electronic records.
Though it has been a long fight, there is now a strong consensus in New Hampshire that an ombudsman is the best alternative to court. Both of the ombudsman bills this year will sunset in 4 years. So, even if one passes this year we will need a new bill in 4 years to keep it going. This is also a big change, albeit a good change, so I’m sure we will need smaller bills in the meantime to make it run smoothly.
I’ve already mentioned free inspection of records. Charging for inspection is just one way some towns and agencies make it hard to access records. There are other common obstacles: high copy costs, needless delays, interpreting records requests narrowly, and so on. Delays and unexplained or apparently unjustified denials for records are the most common complaint citizens ask Right to Know NH about.
An idea to address one of these obstacles, is in the federal Department of Justice guidance for FOIA requests. The guidance is that they should make a good faith effort to steer a badly worded request toward readily accessible records. That is, if they don’t have exactly what you asked for, but they do have something you might find useful, they should give you that option. Each of these obstacles is an opportunity for future bills.
The last fertile theme I’ll bring up is access to electronic records. More and more records are electronic, many from beginning to end. A decade ago, RSA 91-A was revised to deal with electronic records. However, this revision did not recognize the internet, and technology has continued to advance quickly.
Electronic records have lots of complexities compared to paper: metadata, file formats, copying to media including the internet, cyber security, redaction, publishing on the web, and many more.
Metadata is information embedded inside electronic records. An example of useful metadata is a formula in a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet with active formulas can allow a citizen to easily try out what ifs. A counter example of metadata are tracked changes in a document. These could be considered a record of internal deliberations in an agency, not subject to public disclosure under executive privilege. But, what if that document is distributed to a quorum of a public body with those changes still tracked. At that point, those changes may become subject to disclosure. In general, may a citizen request metadata? How is metadata redacted? How does an agency even know what metadata is in a record?
There are similar complexities related to file formats such as how does a citizen get electronic data from a proprietary formatted database. Different formats provide different levels of usefulness. For example, an electronic spreadsheet is very different than a paper printout of that spreadsheet or even a PDF. Can a citizen request a specific format? What formats might be available for a particular record? What if the citizen doesn’t have the software needed to read a particular format?
The questions go on: What is the actual cost of copying electronic records? What are the costs of copying over the internet? How can electronic records be effectively redacted but remain in a useful format? How can electronic records be made available for inspection? How do we encourage more electronic records to be published on the web?
We are going to have more questions as electronic records become more pervasive and more advanced. We need to identify, understand, and prioritize these issues so we can propose bills to ensure that public access to governmental records gets stronger in New Hampshire.