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.

 

 

HB 1202 will allow citizens to defend their reputation

David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1202.

This bill attempts to reduce what many consider the biggest loophole in the exemptions for non-public meetings: the reputation exemption, RSA 91-A:3, II(c).  In my 12 years on the Oyster River School Board I saw this exemption used a lot, and used very broadly.  In most cases in my experience, proper notice was not given.  In fact, in many cases the person being discussed did not know, especially when the person was a member of the general public.

Proper notice to the person is obviously needed for that person to exercise their right for the meeting to be open.  This right has been in the law since RSA 91-A was first passed in 1967.  The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that a similar provision required a specific notice be given to the subject of the meeting.  Stoneman v. Tamworth School District, 114 N.H. 371, 375 (1974).

http://www.orol.org/rtk/rtknh/6831-1974-05-31.html#p375

The court stated the purpose of these provisions is because “an open meeting … [is] a safeguard against improper official conduct”. Id. at 376.  This case was about RSA 91-A:3, II(a) on employees.  There is no specific case about this aspect of RSA 91-A:3, II(c), but the same arguments apply.

This bill not only makes clear that effective notice is required, but it also gives the person certain basic rights to attend the meeting to present their side of the story.  They would have the right to be present, to have a non-speaking counsel or representative, to speak on their behalf, and to record the session at their own expense.  Note that all the provisions of this bill are adapted directly from Massachusetts state law. Mass. G.L. c. 30A, § 21(a)(1).

https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleIII/Chapter30A/Section21

Please contact the House Judiciary Committee and ask them to close this loophole and ensure citizens rights are guaranteed.  Please vote that HB 1202 Ought to Pass.

 

Sunshine Week – Right to Know NH Bills

Sunshine Week Event 2019

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.

SB 313 to create Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know complaints

The Right to Know Law is meant to provide transparency and accountability in our government, but citizens often run into roadblocks attempting to get public bodies and agencies to live up to the letter and spirit of the law.

RTKNH receives citizen complaints from across the state as we are a resource people turn to when they feel their public officials are not lawfully responding to their right to know requests. In 2018, we received 68 inquiries.  This was a 15% increase over 2017.

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.

Senate Bill 313 was created based on the recommendations of the 13 member Legislative Right-to-Know Study Commission created by the passage of HB 178 in 2017.

After 2 months of meetings, a cross representation of stakeholders, including the NHMA, 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 and a Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission was the unanimous recommendation after considering a number of alternatives.

While there is a cost to hiring the Ombudsman there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to taxpayers. By avoiding litigation, public bodies and agencies will often be spared court costs and attorney fees. In the court case of Porter v. Town of Sandwich, the town paid more than $200,000 in attorney fees.  The town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.  Last year, several State Representatives were forced to file a lawsuit against the Coakley Landfill Group because that group failed to provide documents requested under the Right-to-Know Law.  Again, tax dollars were spent on legal fees to resolve this complaint.

While the Ombudsman will resolve the complaints, the Appeals Commission will 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.  The Commission will also compile statistics and make recommendations to the legislature concerning proposed changes to the law.

Please contact your legislators and ask them to support SB 313 which creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial grievance resolution process for citizens and public bodies.