Category: Bills

RTKNH seeks your support for bill to require written reasons for denial of records

The majority of Right-to-Know complaints have to do with records requests either being delayed, denied, or records being redacted without sufficient justification for the redaction.  Bill LSR-2019-0403 addresses the issue by requiring the public body to furnish reasons, in writing, for the delay or denial of records.    When records are denied, it further requires the specific exemption relied on for the denial.  Currently, many public bodies error on the side of denying records because they don’t have to justify their denial to the citizen.  This bill requires them to justify, in writing, why they are denying records.

Rep. Charlotte DiLorenzo, Sen. Bob Giuda, Rep. Robert Renny Cushing, Rep. Jordan Ulery, Rep. Timothy Horrigan, Rep. Kurt Wuelper, and Rep. Jason Janvrin have sponsored this bill (LSR 2019-0403).  Please contact your legislator and ask them to sign on as a cosponsor for LSR 2019-0403.

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RTKNH seeks your support for bill to insure inspection of records at no cost

In 2016, HB 606 was passed which was intended to provide for inspection of records at no cost when the citizen does not request a copy.  Now, another bill is needed because public bodies, under some circumstances, continue to charge citizens to inspect records.  For instance, if there is a need to redact some information, the public body will charge for copy costs, even though the citizen only wishes to inspect the record.  The public body claims that they have to make a copy of the redacted record, so they charge for the copy.  In some cases, when the record is an electronic record (i.e. email or database record) public bodies state they have to copy the record in order to redact information.  Again the citizen is charged the cost of the copy even though the citizen never requested a copy.  This bill clarifies that when the citizen requests to inspect a record at the public body’s place of business, there will not be any charge to do so.

Rep. Mike Sylvia has sponsored this bill (LSR 2019-0665).  Please contact your legislator and ask them to sign on as a cosponsor for LSR 2019-0665.

Rep. Lynne Ober provides misinformation to House on SB 555 before vote

SB 555, which would have established an Ombudsman and Right to Know Appeals Commission was recently voted Inexpedient To Legislate by the House last Thursday.  During the House session, Rep. Lynne Ober of Hudson made a number of comments which were factually incorrect and I feel compelled to provide a rebuttal to several of Rep. Ober’s remarks.

I was one of the 13 members on the Commission which met for several months and made the recommendation for the Ombudsman.   I also was one of the members who drafted the Commission’s findings report and assisted in the drafting of SB 555.

During the House session, Rep. Ober said that the Commission did not look at any other options besides the Ombudsman.  She said “none that were in the report”.  Apparently Rep. Ober did not read the report.  Had she read the report, she would have found on Page 4 a section titled “Consideration of Alternatives” in which it outlines an analysis of what all 50 states have in place to address right to know grievances.  The Report states that 17 states including NH rely on the courts, 19 states rely on the Attorney General office, 9 states have an Ombudsman, and 5 states have an independent Compliance Board.  The report goes on to say that the Commission did not believe the Attorney General’s Office would be a viable alternate option due to potential conflicts of interest.  Please read the Commission report for more details.  For an in depth discussion, read all the Commission meeting minutes which reviews all the options discussed, including the independent Compliance Board.

During the House session, Rep. Ober suggests that the Commission did not consider using mediators who are in the District Court and assigned to Small Claims Court. She asserts that mediators know the right to know law and could work on mediation because these are basically small claims.  As I stated above, the Commission did look at a variety of alternatives including the use of mediators and arbitration.   Small Claims Court deals with disputes valued at less than $10,000.  Right to know grievances deal with the lack of access to governmental meetings and/or governmental records.  While I contend that the value of an open and transparent government is priceless, Rep. Ober failed to explain how Small Claims Court rules and guidelines would work for determining the value assigned to a right to know grievance and how she was sure it would always amount to less than $10,000.   Using Rep. Ober’s logic, I would ask her why we have a Board of Tax and Land Appeals since I’m sure that Board along with several others could also be replaced by using the mediators in Small Claims Court.   After all, aren’t property tax disputes basically small claims?

During the House session, Rep. Ober said that the Appeals commission will hire the attorney.  Apparently, Rep. Ober was working off an obsolete version of the bill, since the bill before the House clearly states that the Ombudsman ‘shall be appointed by the governor and council’.  It appears that she didn’t read the amended version of the bill which was before the House for a vote.

During the House session, Rep. Ober asked, “Do you know an attorney who will work for $48,000 per year?”   The bill does not state whether the position is a full time, part time, or contractual position.  Yet, Rep. Ober, through her remarks, implies that it will be a full time employee of the state, subject to full benefits and a union contract.  Nothing in SB 555 requires the Ombudsman to be a full time position or even an employee of the state, yet Rep. Ober criticized the bill based on that invalid assumption.

During the House session, Rep. Ober said the bill does not address the need for office space and there is no provision for a telephone or desk.  Rep. Ober didn’t read the part of the Fiscal Note attached to the Bill which states that the Department of State would provide administrative and clerical support as needed and that the associated costs would be absorbed in the department’s existing budget.

Rep. Ober seems to have misread a number of details related to this bill and then based on that misinformation proceeded to misinform the full House before their vote.

The fiscal note on SB 555 showed minimal savings because a comprehensive analysis of costs was not performed.  A financial analysis would have included:

  • Saving related to legal costs incurred by all public bodies and agencies to respond to Right to Know complaints and defend against Right to Know lawsuits
  • Legal costs incurred by all citizens who fight for their right to an open and transparent government as provided by Part 1 Article 8 of the Constitution and the RSA 91-A.

The greatest cost savings will be derived from the avoidance of legal costs by public bodies and the citizens.  These savings were pointed out in a letter I sent to the House Finance Committee prior to their vote.

Having the fiscal note only focus on the Court related costs for the actual court cases each year is the same as staring at the iceberg and not acknowledging that what lies below the surface of the water is many times larger than what one sees.   There are many citizens harmed each year by right to know violations who never see their day in court and never get justice.   While hiring an ombudsman is an added expense, there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to the taxpayers.  By avoiding litigation, municipalities and state agencies will often be spared significant legal fees.

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 Oyster River School District spent almost $60,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit. Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.   Deerfield has spent over $50,000 in legal fees.  Recently 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.

Regardless of who wins the lawsuit, there are always significant legal fees which are passed on to the taxpayers.  The House Finance Committee gave the reduction of these legal fees no consideration.  Either way, taxpayers are going to pay for resolving Right to Know grievances.  $48,000 for an Ombudsman now will yield more than $48,000 in avoided litigation costs later.

On paper, it appears that the Right to Law provides for open and transparent government, enforcement of this law falls squarely on the back of the individual citizen who is engaged, cares, and has the financial and emotional capital to take their government to court to enforce their right to know.  Most citizens simply do not have the time or money to fight for themselves and their fellow citizens.  Public officials know this and use this barrier to their advantage as they violate the rights of all citizens.  For each Right to Know petition filed in court there are many more violations which are not pursued by citizens because they cannot afford to do so.  And when a citizen does go to court, public officials use the deep pockets of taxpayer funding to fight against the very taxpayers who are paying the legal fees.

In New Hampshire, the deck is stacked against the citizen. That’s why New Hampshire is ranked 49th out of 50 states by the Center for Public Integrity in the Category of Public Access to Information.
SB 555 would have created a level playing field when an alleged right to know violation has occurred.  With an ombudsman, citizen complaints would have been resolved out of court by an independent party.  This alternate resolution process will allow for ALL citizens, regardless of their financial means, to enforce their right to know and save taxpayers money by reducing legal fees paid by public bodies.

Please contact your Legislator NOW and ask them to vote for reconsideration on SB 555.

David Saad
President
Right to Know NH

Sen. Bob Giuda’s Open Letter to House asking for support on Ombudsman Bill (SB555).

By: Bob Giuda, NH District 2 State Senator

Dear Representative,

New Hampshire ranks 49th of the 50 states in government transparency because of our existing Right-to-Know appeals process. The 13-member statutory Commission To Study Processes To Resolve Right-To-Know Complaints, after studying our process and reviewing how other states deal with their appeals, unanimously agreed that creating an Ombudsman was the most efficient way to resolve Right to Know (RTK) grievances without going to court. It would make RTK appeals faster, fairer and less costly for towns, citizens, businesses and organizations.

The Commission crafted SB555, which passed both the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee with minor amendments. The House Finance Committee, however, voted the Bill ITL.

With regard to costs, in just one RTK appeal, the town of Sandwich was ordered to pay over $200,000 in attorney fees to the citizen who appealed a RTK denial. In another case, the town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees when it lost its RTK lawsuit. The town of Deerfield has spent over $50,000 in RTK lawsuits. The Oyster River School District spent $60,000 in legal fees and lost. Regardless of who prevails in court, significant legal fees are ALWAYS passed on to local taxpayers. A state outlay of $48,000 for an Ombudsman will save our towns far more than $48,000 each year in avoided litigation costs for RTK appeals.

Testimony before the Commission clearly underscored the need for a complete redesign of the appeals process. Under current law, appellants must prove why government should release information, rather than government proving why it should not. Most citizens don’t have the time or money to appeal a denial to Superior court. Testimony proved conclusively that public officials know this and use it to knowingly skirt RTK laws.  For each Right to Know petition filed in Superior court, there are many violations which are not challenged by citizens because they cannot afford to do so. This is a major structural impediment to transparency in our government.

SB 555 creates an alternative process which levels the playing field when an alleged right to know violation has occurred.  With the ombudsman, most citizen complaints can be resolved out of court by an independent arbiter. This alternate resolution process will protect our citizens’ right to know, regardless of their financial means, while still protecting the due process rights of all interested parties to pursue a remedy court.

I am asking you to carefully consider the Commission’s work on SB555 and the compelling testimony of the citizens and organizations which testified before it. Please affirm our citizens’ Right to Know and support greater transparency in government by overturning the ITL on SB555 and voting Ought to Pass as Amended.

Thank you for your consideration.

Respectfully,

Bob Giuda
State Senator
NH District 2

 

The Full House will be voting on SB 555.

Please contact your Legislator NOW and ask them to pass SB 555.

House to vote on Ombudsman Bill. SB555 will save the taxpayers money and level the playing field for complaint resolutions

The Full House will be voting on SB 555 this thursday (4/26).

Please contact your Legislator NOW and ask them to support SB 555.  For details on why you should support SB 555 click here.

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 Citizens needs an Ombudsman.

The Senate agreed that Citizens needs an Ombudsman and voted to pass SB 555.
The House Judiciary Committee also agreed that citizens need an Ombudsman.

Since there was a Fiscal Note on the Bill requiring an appropriation of $48,000 for the Ombudsman, the House Finance Committee recently voted the Bill Inexpedient to Legislate.
The House Finance Committee did not consider all of the savings which would more than offset the cost for an Ombudsman.

While hiring an ombudsman is an added expense, there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to the taxpayers.  By avoiding litigation, municipalities and state agencies will often be spared significant legal fees.  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.  Regardless of who wins the lawsuit, there are always significant legal fees which are passed on to the taxpayers.

Either way, taxpayers are going to pay for resolving Right to Know grievances.  $48,000 for an Ombudsman now will yield more than $48,000 in avoided litigation costs later.

In New Hampshire, the deck is stacked against the citizen.  While on paper it appears that the Right to Law provides for open and transparent government.  Enforcement of this law falls squarely on the back of the individual citizen who is engaged, cares, and has the financial and emotional capital to take their government to court to enforce their right to know.  Most citizens simply do not have the time or money to fight for themselves and their fellow citizens.  Public officials know this and use this barrier to their advantage as they violate the rights of all citizens.  For each Right to Know petition filed in court there are many more violations which are not pursued by citizens because they cannot afford to do so.  And when a citizen does go to court, public officials use the deep pockets of taxpayer funding to fight against the very taxpayers who are paying the legal fees.

SB 555 creates a level playing field when an alleged right to know violation has occurred.  With the ombudman, citizen complaints will be resolved out of court by an independent arbiter.  This alternate resolution process will allow for ALL citizens, regardless of their financial means, to enforce their right to know.

Please contact your Legislator NOW and ask them to pass SB 555.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.