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)
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
David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1786, 1788, 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 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.
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.
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.
David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1347.
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 1347.
If a citizen is not able to attend a public meeting, all they have to know what happened under the law are the minutes. The most important part of minutes is the record of actions taken by the public body. Other than vague language about recording the actions, RSA 91-A does not specify what the minutes must record about actions. As a result minutes vary widely across the state.
One key requirement is that the motion be complete, so the record is complete. Some motions leave key details out. For example, here are the minutes of a motion about an agreement to terminate the superintendent of Oyster River that left out the key detail of how much money it authorized:
“Motion made by Krista Butts, seconded by Jim Kach to expend funds from the unspent
surplus fund balance for the purpose of implementing the mutual separation agreement
between Supt. Colter and School Board including legal fees and other costs associated with implementation. Motion passed by a vote of 6-1.”
The money paid to the superintendent alone was $133,400. The large size of this payment was the reason it was excluded from the minutes. Under public pressure, the minutes were revised about a week later.
Since public bodies make decisions for their agencies to implement, this fact can be used as a yardstick to determine if the minutes adequately record the motion: the motion must have all pertinent details needed to implement the action. HB 1347 adds this yardstick.
How can a citizen hold a member of a public body accountable for their position if there is no record of that position? During deliberations, the members present their positions and reasons for their votes. The minutes should record at least the gist of these arguments. Further, the key supporters of an action, those who make motions and second them, should be recorded. HB 1347 would require all minutes to record these basic additional details on the actions of public bodies.
Please make sure all minutes of public bodies provide a basic record of their actions and report that HB 1347 ought to pass.
David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1579.
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 1579.
To help you understand why I think this bill is so important, let me take you back a few years in the Oyster River School District. The community had just finished an extensive process to select a new high school principal. The superintendent recommended the candidate to the school board, but the board turned him down. The community erupted. 300 people, mostly parents, signed a petition. Hundreds attended board meetings so they had to be held in the auditorium. About 500 students staged a walkout that was reported by the Associated Press worldwide.
The board then decided to terminate the superintendent. But, they didn’t want another eruption, so they went underground. The chief mechanism they used was consultation with legal counsel. Because with this exemption there is no notice and no minutes. There is no trace of a meeting. They abused this exemption by deliberating well beyond legal advice, but it gave them cover for meeting as a board completely off the record. No one knew about their plan until it was done.
But, how they did it violated the Right-to-Know Law as a judge ruled months later and at a cost of $60,000. The judge also noted that they could have acted legally if they had just held nonpublic meetings instead of consultations with legal counsel. But, a non-public meeting, even with sealed minutes, would have had public notice so the attentive public could have known something was up. A risk they weren’t willing to take.
This bill would have avoided the Right-to-Know violations in Oyster River because even those consultations with legal counsel would have had a public record. There would not have been any incentive to use that exemption to the point of abuse just because it had no record.
Since then, the Oyster River School Board has adopted a policy that was the model for this bill. They have followed it and it is not a burden. The record is after the fact so there is no delay or notice. There are no minutes to expose confidential information. Just a public record that they met and the legal exemption. It couldn’t be simpler, but it will have a big impact.
Oyster River is not alone. The total secrecy of consultation with legal counsel has lead to violations in Marlborough, Antrim and Madison in recent years. Please plug this gaping hole in RSA 91-A by reporting that HB 1579 ought to pass.
David Saad of Rumney NH, a member of RTKNH, also provided the following written testimony:
My name is David Saad. I live in Rumney NH and currently serve on the Rumney planning board. I am also the President of Right-to-Know New Hampshire (RTKNH).
I ask you to support SB 395 which provides for delivery of records over the internet at no cost.
Part 1 Article 8 of the NH Constitution states “All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.
When I file a right to know request with SAU 48, they are responsive. I send them an email asking for electronic records. They reply to my email with the requested records attached. Request filled. Both parties can now move on to other matters. Sending records over the internet allows the public body to fulfill the request in the most efficient and least costly manner. In today’s world of the internet, electronic records, and electronic communication this is how business is conducted efficiently.
However, other public bodies choose to not be responsive. Instead they erect unnecessary barriers in order to thwart the public’s right to know. They know that requiring the person to access electronic records during normal business hours at the public agency’s place of business, will act as a deterrent to filing right to know requests. They also require the citizen to pay for a USB device. They follow the path of most resistance instead of the path of least resistance. They make it more difficult and costly for all parties for no legitimate reason. These actions are in direct opposition to ensuring the greatest possible public access to governmental records (RSA 91-A preamble).
There is no good reason why a public agency would establish a policy that would require a disabled senior citizen to drive twenty miles to the SAU office and pay for a USB device in order to receive the school board minutes when the administrative assistant could have simply emailed them with just a few mouse clicks.
This bill will end that policy.
David Taylor of Durham NH, a member of RTKNH, also provided the following written testimony:
I am David K. Taylor of Durham, NH. I served 12 years on the Oyster River School Board and over 20 years on the Oyster River Long Range Planning Committee. For the past several years I have been an advocate for open government. I am writing to ask you to support SB 395.
Should a citizen be charged $7.49 to receive a public 3-page email electronically? That is what SAU 55 charges, and the N.H. Supreme Court agrees under the current language of RSA 91-A. The Court decided this case of Taylor v. SAU 55 on September 21, 2017. The court also ruled that the SAU could impose onerous means of providing the record and refuse to simply forward the email.
This is in spite of HB606 passed in 2016 that intended to make access to electronic records over the internet free. HB606 provided “[n]o fee shall be charged for the … delivery, without copying, of governmental records, … in … electronic … form.” The court decided that providing any electronic record always involves copying, so this provision never applies. Further, the court decided delivery only refers to bringing records to a business office so they can be inspected, instead of delivering the records to the citizen as the legislative history shows.
In the age of the internet, where records are all becoming electronic, and the cheapest way for all is to provide access over the internet, the law should make it clear citizens should have easy access to electronic records. This bill establishes a clear right of citizens to be provided governmental records in electronic format. This clarifies the court ruling in Green v. SAU 55 where the court read between the lines of RSA 91-A to find this right. The bill establishes the procedure for providing these records in a way the citizen can most easily use them. And when there is no substantial incremental cost for providing these records, it establishes that they shall be free. The language of this bill is derived from that of Massachusetts and Connecticut, adapted to fit the framework of RSA 91-A.
Clearly, the ruling in Taylor v. SAU 55 shows RSA 91-A is behind the times. It doesn’t recognize the realities of today and allows government agencies to put needless roadblocks in the way of what should be easy access to electronic records. This bill will be a big step forward to correct this problem.
In addition to this introductory letter, I have included below more background details on issues addressed by SB 395 that I hope may answer your questions about this bill.
Please vote that SB 395 ought to pass.
David Saad of Rumney NH, a member of RTKNH, appeared at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and testified in support of SB 555.
Here is his testimony:
My name is David Saad. I live in Rumney NH and currently serve on the Rumney planning board. 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.
HB 178, passed last year, established a commission to study processes to resolve Right-to-Know complaints.
This bill was drafted in response to 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. A copy of the Final Report is attached for your review.
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 with oversight by a Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission was the recommendation after considering a number of alternatives.
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. Recently, the town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.
While the Ombudsman will resolve the complaints, The Appeals Commission will serve a critical role which includes independent oversight of the ombudsman and educating interested parties on the Right-to-Know Law to increase awareness, compliance, and minimize future violations. The Commission will also compile and deliver recommendations to the legislature concerning proposed changes to the law. Please support this bill which creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial grievance resolution process for all parties.
Senate Bill 555 to establish an ombudsman under the Right-to-Know Law has been introduced in the N.H. Senate and assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. This bill is sponsored by Sen. Bob Giuda (R), Sen. Martha Fuller Clark (D), Rep. Jordan Ulery (r), Sen. Sharon Carson (R), Sen. William Gannon (R), Sen. Daniel Innis (R), Sen. Harold French (R), Rep. Gary Hopper (R), and Rep. Charlotte DiLorenzo (D). RTKNH supports this bill that was the result of last year’s RTK study commission.
SB555 is scheduled for a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, January 23, 2018 at 10:15 a.m. in room 100 of the State House in Concord, N.H. The public is encouraged to attend and testify in favor of this bill.
This bill adds 3 new provisions to RSA 91-A:7 and then adds several new sections starting with RSA 91-A:7-a. The bill modifies RSA 91-A:7 to read as follows:
I. Any person aggrieved by a violation of this chapter may petition the superior court for injunctive relief. In order to satisfy the purposes of this chapter, the courts shall give proceedings under this chapter high priority on the court calendar. Such a petitioner may appear with or without counsel. The petition shall be deemed sufficient if it states facts constituting a violation of this chapter, and may be filed by the petitioner or his or her counsel with the clerk of court or any justice thereof. Thereupon the clerk of court or any justice shall order service by copy of the petition on the person or persons charged. When any justice shall find that time probably is of the essence, he or she may order notice by any reasonable means, and he or she shall have authority to issue an order ex parte when he or she shall reasonably deem such an order necessary to insure compliance with the provisions of this chapter.
II. In lieu of the procedure under paragraph I, an aggrieved person may file a complaint with the ombudsman under RSA 91-A:7-b and in accordance with RSA 91-A:7-c.
III. A person’s decision to petition the superior court forecloses the ability to file a complaint with the ombudsman pursuant to RSA 91-A:7-c.
IV. A person’s decision to file a complaint with the ombudsman forecloses the ability to petition the superior court until the ombudsman issues a final ruling or the deadline for such a ruling has passed.
The bill then adds these new sections after RSA 91-A:7:
91-A:7-a Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission Established. There is established a commission to manage and oversee an alternative right-to-know complaint resolution process.
I. The members of the commission shall be as follows:
(a) One member of the senate, appointed by the president of the senate.
(b) Two members of the house of representatives, appointed by the speaker of the house of representatives.
(c) The attorney general, or designee.
(d) A member, appointed by the chief justice of the supreme court.
(e) The secretary of state, or designee.
(f) A representative of Right to Know NH, appointed by that organization.
(g) Ten citizen members, one from each county, no more than 4 of whom shall be current, local, county, state or federal employees or currently serving in any elected or appointed capacity with any political subdivision, public agency or public institution; and 10 alternate members, one from each county, no more than 4 of whom shall be current local, county, state, or federal employees or currently serving in any elected or appointed capacity with any political subdivision public agency or public institution; all appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the council.
II. The members of the commission shall serve without compensation, but shall be reimbursed for necessary travel and other necessary expenses. Legislative members shall receive mileage at the legislative rate when attending to the duties of the commission.
III. Legislative members of the commission shall serve a term coterminous with their term in office. The members appointed under subparagraph I(g) shall serve for a term of 3 years, except that the initial appointment of such members shall be for staggered terms of one, 2, and 3 years. No member shall serve more than 3 consecutive terms. No member under subparagraph I(g) shall be a current lobbyist or an attorney for any entity subject to this chapter, or an attorney for any organization representing the interests of such entity. Nor shall any such member be employed by any such lobbyist or attorney. The member appointed under subparagraph I(d) shall recuse himself or herself from any court proceedings involving appeals under this chapter. The members appointed under subparagraphs I (c)-(f) shall be advisory only members who shall advise the voting members on questions of law and existing policy governing RSA 91-A.
IV. The commission shall:
(a) Establish rules of procedure to accomplish the mission of the commission to make resolution of complaints under this chapter fast, easy, and inexpensive.
(b) Recruit, screen, and select ombudsman candidates, who shall serve at the will of the commission.
(c) Appoint an ombudsman and evaluate the ombudsman’s performance on a periodic basis, at least annually.
(d) Make recommendations to the legislature concerning proposed changes to this chapter.
(e) Create, and update annually, educational materials relative to this chapter.
V. The members of the commission shall elect a chairperson and a vice chairperson annually from among the voting members. The first meeting of the commission shall be called by the senate member. The first meeting of the commission shall be held within 45 days of the effective date of this section. Seven voting members of the commission shall constitute a quorum.
VI. The commission shall be administratively attached to the department of state.
VII. Beginning November 1, 2019, and each November 1 thereafter, the commission shall submit an annual report of its findings and any recommendations for proposed legislation to the president of the senate, the speaker of the house of representatives, and the governor. The report shall also include the total number of complaints received, the number of complaints received concerning public records and public meetings, the number of complaints received concerning state and county agencies, municipalities, school administrative units, and other public entities, the number of complaints in which a ruling was rendered by the ombudsman, the number of violations of each provision of this chapter found by the ombudsman, and the number of ombudsman rulings that were appealed to the superior court, including whether the appeal was from a complainant or a public agency or official, and whether the ombudsman’s ruling was sustained before the superior court.
91-A:7-b Office Established. There is hereby established the office of the right-to-know ombudsman to be administratively attached to the department of state under RSA 21-G:10. The ombudsman appointed by the commission established under RSA 91-A:7-a shall:
I. Be a member of the New Hampshire bar.
II. Have a minimum of 10 years full-time practice of law in any jurisdiction.
III. Be experienced with and knowledgeable of the provisions of this chapter, the federal Freedom of Information Act, and other states laws regarding right-to-know.
IV. Complete a minimum of 3 hours of continuing legal education courses or other training relevant to the provisions of this chapter.
91-A:7-c Complaint Process.
I. Any party aggrieved by a violation of this chapter shall have the option to either petition the superior court or file a signed, written complaint with the office of the ombudsman, established under RSA 91-A:7-b. Any signed, written complaint filed with the ombudsman shall attach, if applicable, the request served on the public agency or official and the written response of the public agency or official.
II. Once a complaint has been filed and provided by the ombudsman to the public body or public agency, the public body or public agency shall have 10 days to submit an acknowledgment of the complaint and an answer to the complaint, which shall include applicable law and a justification for any refusal to or delay in producing the requested information.
III. In reviewing complaints filed with the ombudsman, the ombudsman shall be authorized to:
(a) Compel timely delivery of records, regardless of medium, for confidential in-camera review.
(b) Compel interviews with the parties.
(c) Order attendance at hearings.
(d) Issue findings in writing to all parties.
(e) Order a public body or public agency to disclose requested records, provide access to meetings, or otherwise comply with the provisions of this chapter, subject to appeal.
(f) Make any finding and order any other remedy to the same extent as provided by the court under RSA 91-A:8.
IV. The ombudsman may draw negative inferences from a party’s failure to participate and comply with orders during the review process.
V. In implementing the provisions of this section, the ombudsman shall follow the procedures established by the commission.
VI. The ombudsman shall determine whether there have been any violations of this chapter and issue a ruling within 30 days following receipt of the parties’ submissions and, if applicable, the records following an in-camera review. This 30-day deadline may be extended to a reasonable time frame by the ombudsman for good cause. The ombudsman may also expedite resolution of the complaint upon a showing of good cause. Rulings on expedited complaints shall be issued within 10 business days, or sooner where necessary.
VII. The ombudsman shall access governmental records in camera that a public body or public agency believes are exempt in order to make a ruling concerning whether the public body or public agency shall release the records or portions thereof to the public. The ombudsman shall maintain the confidentiality of records provided to the ombudsman by a public body or public agency under this section and shall return the records to the public body or public agency when the ombudsman’s review is complete.
VIII. Nothing in this section shall affect the ability of a person to seek relief in superior court under RSA 91-A:7, I in lieu of this process.
91-A:7-d Appeal and Enforcement.
I. Any party may appeal the ombudsman’s final ruling to the superior court by filing a notice of appeal in superior court no more than 30 days after the ombudsman’s ruling is issued. The ombudsman’s ruling shall be attached to the document initiating the appeal, admitted as a full exhibit by the superior court, considered by the judge during deliberations, and specifically addressed in the court’s written order. Citizen-initiated appeals shall have no filing fee or surcharge. The public body or public agency shall pay the sheriff’s service costs if the public body or public agency, or its attorney, declines to accept service. Nothing in this section shall prevent a superior court from staying an ombudsman’s decision pending appeal to the superior court.
II. A superior court appeal of the ombudsman’s ruling shall review the ruling de novo.
III. If the ombudsman’s final ruling is not appealed, the ombudsman shall, after the deadline has passed, follow up with all parties, as required, to verify compliance with rulings issued.
IV. The ombudsman’s final rulings which are not appealed may be registered in the superior court as judgments and enforceable through contempt of court. If such action is necessary to enforce compliance, all costs and fees, including reasonable attorney fees, shall be paid by the noncompliant public body or public agency.
91-A:7-e Rulemaking. The commission, in consultation with the secretary of state, shall adopt rules pursuant to RSA 541-A relative to:
I. Establishing procedures to streamline the process of resolving complaints under this chapter.
II. Further qualifications and review of the ombudsman, established in RSA 91-A:7-b.
III. Content of educational materials under RSA 91-A:7-a.
IV. Other matters necessary to the proper administration of RSA 91-A:7-a through RSA 91-A:7-d.
The bill appropriates $48,000 for the new ombudsman.
The full text of the bill is available here.