Category: Bills

HB 1390 will allow citizens to independently verify election results

David Saad of Rumney NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the House Election Law Committee in support of HB 1390

As a computer consultant for over 30 years, I have spent much of my professional life identifying and correcting computer system errors.  Many times, these errors are attributable to the computer system itself even though it had been previously put through various tests to insure its accuracy.  The reality is that no electronic device is 100% accurate all the time.  The accuracy of ballot counting devices depends on a number of factors and each of those factors are susceptible to inherent flaws which may not be fully uncovered before the devices are used to count votes.  Ballot counting devices are subject to unintentional and intentional error.  One of the easiest ways to insure the ballot counting device is working accurately is to conduct an independent verification count of all machine-counted ballots.

Please support HB 1390 which will make ballots accessible to citizens to allow an independent verification of all votes tallied.

Please contact the House Election Law Committee and ask them to vote HB 1390 Ought to Pass.

 

 

HB 1169 eliminates roll call votes when member participates via telephone

David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1169.

I am David K. Taylor of Durham, NH.  I served 12 years on the Oyster River School Board and have been a member of Right to Know NH for 5 years.

I am opposed to HB 1169.

This bill would strike a provision of RSA 91-A:2, III(e). The current provision requires all votes to be by roll call when a member of a public body is participating in a meeting electronically.

The current provision is common sense to anyone who has participated in a conference call.  In a conference call, it is sometimes hard to identify who is speaking.  This could be because the audio quality is poor.  It is also because when a person is speaking live in a room, you can tell where their voice is coming from.  Their voice has direction.  That direction is lost over a phone call.  Multiple speakers appear to be coming from the same place, so it is harder to distinguish them.  Also, people tend to speak at the same time more often in a conference call.  This is because of extra delays transmitting their voices, and the lack of visual cues used to subtly negotiate who gets to speak.

Given this extra difficulty identifying speakers on both ends of a phone call, it is critical that the votes at a public meeting be unambiguous and transparent.  Requiring a roll call vote makes them unambiguous.

Since members should only participate electronically when it is not “reasonable practical” to attend in person, the slight burden of a roll call vote should be the exception instead of the rule.  The extra transparency outweighs this burden.

The provision to require roll call votes for electronic participation must be kept.

Please contact the House Judiciary Committee and ask them to vote that HB 1169 is Inexpedient to Legislate.

 

HB 1689 specifies verbatim minutes for non-public sessions

Donna Green formerly of Sandown NH, and a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1689.

Dear Honorable Members of the House Judicial Committee:

Please let me share just one experience of many from my public service to illustrate the importance of passing HB 1689 concerning non-public minutes.

I was a representative from Sandown on the Timberlane Regional School Board. Just before  my service began in March 2014, the school board went into a nonpublic session under 91-A:3 II (a): The dismissal, promotion, or compensation of any public employee or the disciplining of such employee, or the investigation of any charges against him or her…

The sole purpose of their nonpublic session was to discuss hiring a consultant to initiate a Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) program. She was being hired through a third party (SERESC).

The board exited the nonpublic and voted in public to “approve the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools contract.” The board did not reveal the terms of the contract or the person being contracted.

This is what the nonpublic meeting minutes say:

Motion: Mr. Bealo motioned to enter into a non-public session under RSA 91-A: 3, II[a] the dismissal, promotion, or compensation of any public employee or the disciplining of such employee, or the investigation of any charges against him or her. Mr. Ward seconded. The board was polled at 9:30 pm: 

Bealo Yes

Blair Yes

Collins Yes

Delfino Yes

Morris Yes

Sherman Yes

Steenson Yes

Ward Yes 

The board discussed both the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools contract presented to them for consideration and the specific individuals responsible for providing the consultation work. 

Motion: Mr. Bealo motioned to exit the non-public session; seconded by Mrs. Delfino the board was polled: 

Bealo Yes

Blair Yes

Collins Yes

Delfino Yes

Morris Yes

Sherman Yes

Steenson Yes

Ward Yes 

The board exited the non-public session at 9:40 pm.

Included in the public minutes is this:

Motion: Mr. Blair motioned to approve the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools contract. Mrs. Sherman seconded the motion. With no further discussion the motion passed by unanimous vote of (8-0-0). 

Chairman Collins applied his signature to the contract.  

Immediately after this meeting I filed a Right to Know request to see the approved contract. I received it some days later. I learned that the contract was for five years at $50,000 a year and the consultant was the superintendent’s wife.

Apart from despicable nepotism, there were major violations of the law going on here – none of which can be punished with any consequence whatsoever:

  • A consultant is not an “employee,” and therefore all discussion concerning consultants are required to be conducted in public unless under a “reputation” exemption, which 91-A:II(a) is not. The nonpublic session was illegal.
  • The superintendent’s wife’s contract did not contain a non-appropriation clause. NH budget law states that multi-year contracts lacking a non-appropriation clause must be put before voters for their approval. This contract did not go to the voters, yet the district was bound to it for 5 years, at $50,000 a year.

Subsequent to this contract, the head of the foreign language department was demoted and disciplined for criticizing the superintendent’s wife on Facebook. This teacher successfully sued the district for First Amendment violations and was awarded a monetary settlement. Such are the fruits of nepotism.

The school board subsequently bought a $167,000 reading program from a company that also employed the superintendent’s wife as a consultant. At least some members of the school board did not know of this relationship.

Now this same superintendent is suing his own SAU for paying him only $100,000 in compensatory time for “overtime” when he claims he was entitled to time and a half.

You cannot make this up because it is impossible to fathom the depths of deceit and self-interest that can go on in public administration with or without the collusion of elected officials. As you all know, there is no enforcement of the law so electioneering, budget law violations and flagrant Right to Know violations are rampant. Citizens alone, without the help of government, must police their own public bodies and they can only do this with knowledge which you hold the key to in your support for this legislation.

We need verbatim nonpublic minutes or archived recordings. When public officials know their words and their actions will be recorded and ultimately made public, they will be on their best behavior or their constituents will have the knowledge to vote them out. I’m willing to bet this will put an end to many illegal nonpublic sessions, and I’ve seen numerous illegal sessions or sessions that quickly veer into topics that should by law be discussed publicly. The cost of a few thumb drives cannot compare to the money it will save in preventing or exposing malfeasance.

Nonpublic minutes in SAU 55, like the one discussed here, are notoriously bereft of any information. I suspect they are often like this elsewhere. If these minutes did have inconvenient information, they would simply be sealed indefinitely. This is why I would ask the committee to consider HB 1689 along with HB 1559 that attempts to limit the length of time nonpublic minutes can be sealed and to bring some transparency to the number of minutes being kept from the pubic.

Please contact the House Judiciary Committee and ask them to vote HB 1689 Ought to Pass.

 

 

SB 689 will create an alternate resolution process for Right to Know complaints

David Saad of Rumney NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the Senate Executive Departments and Administration in support of SB 689.

My name is David Saad.  I live in Rumney NH and I am also the President of Right-to-Know New Hampshire (RTKNH).

I ask you to support this bill.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, evaluated the freedom of information laws of all 50 states as part of its State Integrity Investigation.  In the Category of Public Access to Information, New Hampshire earned a grade of F, and ranked 49th out of 50 states. In the category titled “In practice, citizens can resolve appeals to access to information requests within a reasonable time period and cost,” New Hampshire received a score of 0.

Those findings summarized what many Right to Know advocates already knew.  In NH, the burden to resolve Right to Know complaints is very high for citizens because one has to file a petition in Superior Court.

In 2017, the passage of HB 178 established a commission to study processes to resolve Right-to-Know complaints.

After 2 months of meetings, a cross representation of stakeholders unanimously agreed that citizens need a grievance resolution process which is easier, cheaper, faster and results in less cost for all parties.  Establishing an independent Ombudsman was the recommendation after considering a number of alternatives.

The origins of this bill come from the recommendations of the 13 member Legislative Right-to-Know Study Commission created by HB 178.  I was one of the 13 members on the Study Commission.  I was also 1 of the members tasked with writing the Final Report published by the Study Commission and I contributed to the drafting of this bill.

The Study Commissions Final Report can be read at http://www.orol.org/rtk/rtknh/2017-10-31-HB178-Commission-Report.pdf

While there is a cost to hiring the Ombudsman, there are opportunities for savings which can more than offset this cost.  If court can be avoided, there will be savings in court costs and public agencies will save a tremendous amount in legal fees which saves the taxpayers money.  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.  The town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.

Please support this bill which creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial grievance resolution process for all parties.

Please contact the Senate Executive Departments and Administration and ask them to vote SB 689 Ought to Pass.

 

 

HB 1170 definition of ‘reasonably described’ is unreasonable

David Saad of Rumney NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in opposition to HB 1170.

While the term “reasonably described” is not defined in the current law, there is plenty of federal and state case law which provides a good foundation for how citizens and public bodies must interpret the term.

This bill is not needed and if passed it would significantly limit a citizen’s ability to discover the truth about the functioning of its government.  Often when a citizen or reporter is investigating how officials performed their duties or spent taxpayers money they need to review documents which span many months or years.  For example, let’s say you want to look at the expenditures for a specific budgeted line item and compare the budget against actual.  Since a year is 365 days, you would be required to submit 13 separate Right to Know requests to get that information since a single request cannot span more than 30 days.  Thus, an unintended consequence of this bill will be a significant increase in the number of Right to Know requests.

To take the above example further, in order to investigate the specifics of how that money was appropriated, authorized for payment, and then to track the actual payments you have to review the minutes from several meetings, invoices from the vendor, and approvals for payments.  At a minimum these are 3 different document types.  Does this bill now require 3 separate Right to Know requests, one for each document type?  This bill is trying to force a very narrow degree of specificity in Right to Know requests which is unrealistic given the investigative nature of many records requests.

Also, this bill introduces significant ambiguity by introducing the new term “extensive research” without a definition.  The dictionary defines “extensive” as “very large in amount or degree”.  Any public body will now be able to refuse to fulfill many requests for records by claiming that in order to fulfill the request it would require “extensive research”.  There is no process established to explain what is and what is not “extensive research”.  Thus, all the current federal and state case law which provides guidance for “reasonably described” will have to be replaced by new, yet to be filed, state supreme court opinions.  Another unintended consequence of this bill will be a wave of new Right to Know lawsuits over what is and is not “extensive research”.

Please contact the House Judiciary Committee and ask them to vote HB 1170 Inexpedient to Legislate.

 

 

HB 1307 allows the government to charge you to inspect the records you already own

David Saad of Rumney NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in opposition to HB 1307.

Our government belongs to us.  Enshrined in Part 1 Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution, we have the right to know what our government is doing on our behalf.

The records of our government belong to the people and a citizen should not be charged fees to look at any record.  Consider a citizen or news reporter who notices something odd like a decision of a board that came out of nowhere or an expenditure that does not seem to be in the public’s best interest. Through public records requested, they investigate to identify illegal decisions made by public officials or to root out public corruption. Why should the person requesting records pay fees when the records 1) already belong to the citizens, 2) they contribute to the public’s understanding of government’s activities, and 3) they inform voters of how elected officials and public employees are conducting business on our behalf?  Charging citizens a fee to access records gives public agencies the ability to construct toll booths along the information highway on route toward the truth.  Many citizens would run out of money long before they reached their destination.

Would you be willing to:

  • Pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for an unknown amount of records?
  • Pay the amount weeks or months in advance of receiving the records?
  • Have no way to dispute the amount you paid or request a refund if the wrong records were provided?
  • Pay to have someone search for records which don’t exist or end up not being provided because they are exempt from disclosure?

That’s what this bill will require you to do and it will have a chilling effect on the rights of citizens to know what their government is doing on their behalf.  It will also result in an increase in Right to Know requests as citizens will arbitrarily break one logical request into multiple smaller requests in order to avoid being charged fees.

A representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate.  Everyone is entitled to public information regarding the official acts and affairs of government.  Providing citizens with such information is an essential government function and should be an integral part of the routine duties of public officers and employees.  Please make it explicitly clear that nothing may be charged to inspect a governmental record.

Please contact the House Judiciary Committee and ask them to vote HB 1307 Inexpedient to Legislate.

 

 

HB 1325 will require a list of sealed minutes

David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1325.

I am David K. Taylor of Durham, NH.  I served 12 years on the Oyster River School Board and have been a member of Right to Know NH for 5 years.

This bill would require a public body to maintain a list of all sealed non-public minutes and make that list available to the public.

Once non-public minutes are sealed they a filed away where there is almost no accountability.

This bill addresses a Catch-22 with sealed non-public minutes.  Consider a citizen who wants to review how a public body is sealing minutes.  Since those minutes are sealed, they are not available to the public.  But, the public body is not required to compile a list of sealed minutes under RSA 91-A:4, VII.  So, it is very hard for a citizen to know which minutes are sealed and why.  It would be a waste of everyone’s time to ask for fully redacted copies of the sealed minutes. It would also be very time consuming to get copies of regular minutes searching for those that mention sealed minutes.

Since sealed minutes deprive the public of access to meetings of public bodies, and thus should be used sparingly, a list of sealed minutes will make it easier to hold public bodies accountable.

This list will not only be available to the public, but it will also help facilitate regular review leading to minutes being unsealed more promptly.  Over the 12 years I served on the Oyster River School Board, I don’t remember unsealing more than a very few non-public minutes.  We did not conduct a regular review of sealed minutes.  I’ll bet there were minutes sealed beyond the time warranted.  But, because we didn’t even know what minutes were sealed, we didn’t know we needed to unseal them.

This bill is not retroactive.  It does not impose a burden on the public body to go through its files and list the sealed minutes.  But, there is nothing in this bill that keeps a public body from taking that step on their own initiative.  And, frankly, I hope when the list makes it easier to review sealed minutes, it prompts at least some public bodies to take that initiative.

This simple list will help shine a light on a place that is currently very dark.  Please contact the House Judiciary Committee and ask them to vote HB 1325 Ought to Pass.