Category: Bills

House passes SB 555 which creates an alternate RTK grievance resolution process

SB 555 has been passed by the House of Representatives.  As there is a Fiscal Note on this bill, the bill now goes to the committee on Finance.

RTKNH supports this bill.  Here are some reasons why.

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

 

 

 

 

 

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House to vote on SB 555 which creates an alternate RTK grievance resolution process

SB 555 will be voted on by the House of Representatives Thursday 4/12/2018.  This bill creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial Right to Know (RSA 91-A) grievance resolution process for all parties.

RTKNH supports this bill.  Here are some reasons why.

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

The 13 member study commission unanimously agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman.

The Senate agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman and voted to pass SB 555.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-2 in favor of this bill.

SB 555 is before the House for a vote this Thursday.

Please contact your State Representative and ask them to support SB 555.

 

 

SB 555 which creates an alternate RTK grievance resolution process; before the House Judiciary Committee

SB 555 will be before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday 3/27/2018 @ 10am LOB Room 208.  This bill which creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial Right to Know (RSA 91-A) grievance resolution process for all parties.

RTKNH supports this bill.  Here are some reasons why.

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

The 13 member study commission unanimously agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman.

The Senate agreed that New Hampshire needs an Ombudsman and voted to pass SB 555.

Now SB 555 is before the House Judiciary Committee for a vote.

 

Please contact your Legislator and ask them to support SB 555.

 

 

SB 555 Will Establish an Alternative Grievance Resolution Process for Right to Know Complaints

By: David Saad

New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law is meant to provide transparency and accountability in our government, but citizens often run into roadblocks attempting to get state and local agencies to live up to the letter and spirit of the law.

Many times, documents are withheld from disclosure, often without any detailed explanation. Public bodies and agencies also tend to err on the side of nondisclosure in matters which involve privacy or confidentiality of others. Citizens frequently feel documents are inappropriately withheld and there’s little recourse outside of expensive and intimidating litigation.

The Center for Public Integrity in 2015 evaluated the freedom of information laws of all 50 states as part of its State Integrity Investigation. In public access to information, New Hampshire earned an F grade and ranked 49 out of all 50 states.

Worse, when it comes to the appeals process, the center gave New Hampshire a score of zero. The Right to Know Law, also known as RSA 91-A, requires all appeals to be made using the judicial system and there is a high bar for the recovery of attorney fees and other costs.

This all comes as little surprise to right-to-know advocates in the state. In New Hampshire, the burden to resolve public record and open meeting disputes is nearly entirely on the citizen. Fortunately, there may be help on its way.

Last year, House Bill 178 established a 13-member commission to study ways to resolve public record and open meeting complaints as well as to reduce the cost of appeals for citizens, courts, municipalities and state agencies. After two months of meetings, the commission — whose members include a variety of different stakeholders, myself one of them — recommended establishing an independent ombudsman to be overseen by a new Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission.

Senate Bill 555, implements this recommendation. Senate Bill 555 was passed by the Senate and is now before the House.

An ombudsman will create a new and faster path to resolve Right to Know Law disputes. Citizens will have the option to either petition the superior court or file a signed, written complaint with a new ombudsman’s office. The ombudsman will process the complaint, acquire and review documents, and conduct interviews if necessary. He or she will determine if there has been a violation of RSA 91-A and issue a ruling within 30 days.

The ombudsman can order a remedy for a violation just as a court now can. Remedies would include providing the public access to meetings and compelling the disclosure of records. Either party may appeal the ombudsman’s ruling to superior court. Rulings not appealed may be registered in court as judgements to be enforced through the court.

If established, an ombudsman will help to:

• Achieve a resolution, in many cases, without involving the courts. This will result in a reduction of court-related costs.

• Further level the playing field so all citizens can pursue their rights under the Right to Know Law without hiring an attorney.

• Reduce costs incurred by citizens, resulting in more opportunity to resolve Right to Know Law grievances.

• Streamline the resolution process greatly and reduce the time to achieve an outcome.

While hiring an ombudsman and establishing a new office is an added expense, there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to taxpayers. By avoiding litigation, municipalities and state agencies will often be spared court costs and attorney fees. In the recently settled case Porter v. Town of Sandwich, for example, the town paid more than $200,000 in attorney fees to the plaintiff, in addition paying the legal fees it incurred itself.  Recently several State Representatives were forced to file a lawsuit in Court against the Coakley Landfill Group because that group failed to provide documents requested under the Right-to-Know Law.  Again, tax dollars will be spent on legal fees to resolve this complaint while citizens continue to be left without the transparency in government which is their right.

In addition, the Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission will:

  • Establish policies and procedures for the Appeals process
  • Improve right-to-know educational materials to increase compliance
  • Report annually to the legislature with a summary of complaints filed and recommendations for future changes to the law

To maintain trust between the people and their government, the establishment of an ombudsman and citizen commission will be indispensable. They will help protect the right of citizens to access government records and to receive advance notice of open meetings, among many other rights afforded by RSA 91-A.

Senate Bill 555 has bipartisan support but representatives need to hear from you. Please contact your New Hampshire Representatives and ask them to make resolving right-to-know disputes faster, cheaper and easier for all citizens.

David Saad is president of Right to Know NH.

Right to Know Bills before the House

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The following Bills, will be before the House for a vote this Thursday.

HB 1347 – Bill requires meeting minutes to include:

  • Names of the members who made or seconded each motion
  • Brief summary of comments made during deliberations
  • All relevant details necessary to enact or implement the motion

HB 1579 – Bill requires a record of non meetings

  • Collective Bargaining Strategy or Negotiations
    • names of members, persons appearing before the public bodies, meeting places, and beginning and ending dates and times, name of collective bargaining unit discussed
  • Consultation with legal counsel
    • names of members, persons appearing before the public bodies, meeting places, and beginning and ending dates and times, name of legal counsel and how legal counsel participated (i.e. in person, by phone, etc)

HB 1788 – Bill sets copy cost to 10 cents per page

RTKNH supports all 3 bills.

Please contact your legislators and ask them to support these bills.

HB 1344 – Time for Collective Bargaining Negotiations to Public

HB 1344 will eliminate the exemption for collective bargaining negotiations and require that all collective bargaining negotiations be done in a public session.

Below is a guest editorial by Donna Green of Sandown NH, a member of RTKNH.

Salaries and benefits are the biggest expenses in public education.  They are also the biggest drivers for the continually increasing costs of running our schools with fewer and fewer students.

In my school district, salaries and assorted benefits will cost us $52 million next year.  That’s 73% of our 17/18 budget. Despite this enormous expenditure by the public, there is no transparency whatsoever in how these salaries and generous benefits are arrived at with our teacher and support staff unions.

Our negotiations begin with the school board assigning a few board members to the negotiating team. They confer amongst themselves and confer with the board as a whole. The teachers’ union also assembles a few teachers.  Presumably they confer amongst themselves and so on. So far, so good.

Both parties hire their own lawyer.  In the presence of the negotiating teams of their respective sides, the lawyers conduct the negotiations – entirely behind closed doors. Everyone involved is instructed to hold the entire process in complete confidence.

With the assurance of never being contradicted, both parties will claim to their broader constituents that they drove a hard bargain.  Did they?  Who is to know? We, the taxpayer, are left with increasingly unsustainable bills for benefits we ourselves do not enjoy in our private sector jobs. It leaves you wondering just how hard your elected representatives actually did work in your interests.  Similarly, union members are left mystified as to why and how their initial positions got changed (if they did).

There is no reason we should be wondering.  There is no reason at all that these negotiations should be done in secret. Every taxpayer and every union member alike should have a full understanding of just how hard their representatives and their hired guns have actually worked to drive a fair deal for all parties.

This is hardly a far-fetched idea.  A 2015 policy paper published by the Commonwealth Foundation, “Opening the Curtain on Government Unions,” listed eight states that required collective bargaining negotiations to be conducted in public session:

  • Colorado (school districts only)
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Minnesota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Montana

One rural county in Washington state last year, Lincoln County, insisted on opening its negotiations to the public.  They were sued by their public union for bargaining in bad faith but the court upheld the county’s right to demand transparency.

In the Commonwealth Foundation paper, Senior Fellow Priya Abraham argued:

Whenever major public policy or public money decisions are concerned, allowing public and press access to proceedings is crucial to transparent government.  Moreover, transparency in government union collective bargaining is becoming increasingly necessary as public sector compensation outstrips that in the private sector, with the result being heavier tax burdens for working people.

New Hampshire’s Right to Know law (RSA 91-A) exempts collective bargaining negotiations from its open meeting requirements.  This should be changed by legislators, but until then it is important to understand the difference between a permissible exemption and an absolute requirement.  New Hampshire’s law says public bodies may conduction their collective bargaining in private, but it does not require them to do so.  School districts and other public bodies should do the right thing by taxpayers and union members in insisting on negotiations in public when both parties are present.

To be clear, this is not an attack on unions. The only parties threatened by sunshine are those who aren’t standing up for the interests of their constituents.

Donna Green is also president of the School District Governance Association of New Hampshire. The SDGA’s mission is to educate and empower elected school district officials to assert their lawful authority and be responsive to their electorate.  SDGANH.org

 

 

HB 1786, 1788, 1789 Testimony

David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1786, 1788, 1789.

HB 1786:

I am David K. Taylor of Durham, New Hampshire. I served for 12 years on the Oyster River School Board and still serve on the Oyster River Long Range Planning Committee. I have been an advocate for open government for the past several years. I write in support of HB 1786.

This simple bill adds 2 words to RSA 91-A:4, IV that clarifies that no charges of any kind may be required to simply inspect government records. HB 606 in 2016 added the provision that begins “No fee shall be charged for the inspection….” From the legislative record for HB 606, it was clear this was intended to prohibit all charges. But, in 2 court cases, the word “fee” was argued to be distinct from “cost”. One case was in Tuftonboro and the other in SAU 55.

A “cost” is a charge to cover expenses. But, the definition of “fee” is ambiguous. A fee can be any kind of charge, or a fee can be a charge for a service like attorney’s fees, or a fixed charge like an application fee.

In other places in RSA 91-A, both the terms cost and fee are used, leading to the more
consistent interpretation that fee does not include cost. For example, consider the next
sentence of RSA 91-A:4, IV:
“Nothing in this section shall exempt any person from paying fees otherwise established by law for obtaining copies of governmental records or documents, but if such fee is established for the copy, no additional costs or fees shall be charged.”

To make sure the law prohibits all charges, both costs and fees, for inspecting records, please support HB 1786.

HB 1788:

I am David K. Taylor of Durham, New Hampshire. I served for 12 years on the Oyster River School Board and still serve on the Oyster River Long Range Planning Committee. I have been advocate for open government for the past several years. I write in support of HB 1788.

What does it cost to copy a record? Even a simple 8 and 1/2 by 11 black and white paper copy involves a lot of factors: paper, toner or ink, copy machine, electricity, facilities, etc. It is hard to figure out what the “actual cost” is as allowed under RSA 91-A:4, IV. So, many agencies and towns make a guess which I have seen range from 8 cents in Oyster River to $1.00 in Manchester. Twenty-five or 50 cents is common, too. It doesn’t seem reasonable that the actual costs really vary by so much.

There is an easy way to judge these costs. What does it cost at Staples, or Office Max or the local copy shop? All of these businesses incur the same costs and also add a margin for profit. Yet, Staples charges 11 cents per page throughout southern New Hampshire. This is the same cost for self service or if they make the copies for you. In Massachusetts law, such copies are limited to 5 cents per page.

This bill would use this kind of prevailing commercial rate for copies as an upper limit on copies from towns and agencies. Towns and agencies shouldn’t be adding a profit margin, so even this limit gives them some wiggle room.

This bill uses the prevailing commercial rate instead of a fixed rate for 2 reasons. First, the cost factors across the state may vary. The prevailing rate in a city with a lot of competition may be lower than the rate in a rural community with only a small local copy shop. Second, the cost factors may vary over time. Several years ago there was a rise in the cost of paper, for example. Or, there could be a new technology on the horizon that greatly reduces the costs. It’s better to use language like the prevailing commercial rate that can adapt without having to revise the language with each change.

The language of this bill comes from a bill currently pending in South Carolina.

Please vote that HB 1788 ought to pass and make it easier for all to know how much copies of records should cost.

HB 1789:

I am David K. Taylor of Durham, New Hampshire. I served for 12 years on the Oyster River School Board and still serve on the Oyster River Long Range Planning Committee. I have been an advocate for open government for the past several years. I write in support of HB 1789 with amendment.

This bill would make copies of all electronic records free. I agree with the goal of this bill, but I am concerned that it goes too far. In some cases, providing electronic records incurs a substantial cost, and in those cases I think it is reasonable to charge for the copies in order to cover those costs.

In particular, there are basically 2 ways to provide an electronic record. One way is to transmit it across a network like the Internet. If the town or agency already has an Internet connection, the incremental cost of sending most electronic records is negligible. A prime example is documents available on a web site. There should be no charge to copy records from a web site over the Internet.

The other way to provide an electronic record is to copy it to expendable physical media like a thumb drive or a CD-ROM disk. These expendable media cost money and are given away as part of the transfer. They represent an actual cost under RSA 91-A:4, IV. A thumb drive from SAU 55 costs $7.49 and a CR-ROM from Keene costs $1.00 for example. If the requester wants the electronic records on an expendable media, they should pay for it.

There is another potential cost to provide an electronic record. Most citizens don’t have
commercial database systems, and some don’t have Microsoft Word or Excel. In order for the citizen to be able to use an electronic record, they need it to be in a format that matches the software they have. There are common formats such as Word or Excel or formats that lose functionality like comma-separate-values (CSV), portable document format (PDF), rich text format (RTF), or just plain text. In rare cases, the citizen may need the record in an obscure format that the town would need to buy software or hire a service to convert to. Both of these options would incur a cost that the requester should pay for.

There is another bill this year, SB 395, that includes language to address these cases. Here is the provision from SB 395: “No cost or fee shall be charged for providing governmental records in a readily available format over the Internet.” This language recognizes the negligible cost of providing records over the Internet. It also limits free copies to those provided in formats the agency or town can easily provide with their own software.

I ask you to consider amending HB 1789 to use this language from SB 395. I think this
amended language better recognizes when electronic records should be available for free.