Dr. Marianne Salcetti won this year’s Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award for her case against the City of Keene with 5 of her journalism students at Keene State College. The case involved Right-to-Know requests made by the 5 students to Keene for public records that the city denied. The records related to restaurant inspections, excessive use of police force, underage drinking, and sexual assault.
The Cheshire Superior Court largely ruled against the students, but on appeal they largely prevailed at the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Attorney Greg Sullivan represented Dr. Salcetti and the students at the Supreme Court. Dr. Salcetti and the students represented themselves in the Superior Court. Right to Know NH assisted the plaintiffs.
Please sign the petition asking the Governor Sununu to release the entire unredacted Laurie List/Exculpatory Evidence Schedule (“EES”) to the public.
We strongly oppose the NH Attorney General’s attempts to keep the Laurie List/Exculpatory Evidence Schedule (“EES”) secret from the public.
The EES is a list of New Hampshire law enforcement officers with sustained findings of misconduct for credibility or trustworthiness, like lying, falsifying reports, stealing, and excessive force.
In a court order dated April 23, 2019, Judge Charles Temple ruled the EES is “not confidential,” and “is not exempt from disclosure under RSA 91-A,” and that it should be made public“.
Despite this, the NH Attorney General has now filed an appeal, at taxpayer expense, to continue to keep this list of bad cops secret from the public.
“When you keep information like this secret, it creates distrust and suspicion,” says Gilles Bissonnette with the ACLU of New Hampshire. “It’s bad for the public, it’s bad for police. It is really critical that we don’t undermine faith and confidence in law enforcement, but that’s what secrecy does.”
“These officers have engaged in sustained misconduct that concerns credibility and truthfulness, and the public has a clear right to this information—especially when it goes to the core of an officer’s ability to perform their duties.”
We respectfully urge Governor Sununu to instruct his Attorney General to immediately:
1. Withdraw the EES appeal;
2. Release the entire unredacted EES; and
3. Permanently keep the EES public, as required by the NH Constitution:
“Art. 8. Accountability of Magistrates and Officers; Public’s Right to Know. 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.”
A lawsuit alleging violations under the Right-to-Know law is scheduled for trial today in New Hampshire Superior Court in Nashua, NH, before Judge Charles Temple. A Bedford-based commercial real estate development firm, Granite Green Investment Partners, LLC, filed the lawsuit against the City of Nashua in October 2017. Granite believes records and communications produced by the City in response to two Right-to-Know requests sent by Granite in February and June 2017, respectively, show the Mayor of Nashua, James W. Donchess, may have played some role in the City’s review of and decision-making process concerning Granite’s site plan application for an age-restricted housing project for the elderly, and the review, by the Nashua Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), of an appeal by four abutters to the project of the City’s prior determination that the project qualified as elderly housing under a Nashua ordinance and would not require any variances.
According to Granite’s filings, the City’s initial production of records in response to Granite’s first Right-to-Know request revealed a disturbing trend of events concerning the City’s review of the project. For example, a text message between Mayor Donchess and Mariellen MacKay, a Nashua ZBA member who voted against the project, a mere 12 minutes after the conclusion of a February 14, 2017, ZBA meeting that addressed Granite’s application (wherein the ZBA, as noted above, reversed the City’s prior determination) demonstrates, along with other communications, Mayor Donchess’s strong dissatisfaction with the project. Earlier communications from Mayor Donchess reveal he berated Nashua City Staff when he learned they determined the project satisfied the Nashua ordinance referenced above; proposed and endorsed an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance that would preclude elderly housing projects – such as Granite’s – from being built in residential neighborhoods; and celebrated the ZBA’s February 14 decision with both Ms. MacKay and Sarah Marchant (Nashua’s Community Development Director) the day after it was rendered.
Granite contends that, despite the City’s production of the records and communications above, the City failed to produce additional records and respond to numerous other right-to-know requests concerning the events above. It initially failed to produce text messages involving individual ZBA members in response to Granite’s initial right-to-know request; revealed Ms. MacKay routinely deletes her text messages; failed to respond to Granite’s second right-to-know request for nearly two weeks; failed to make several documents available that were “immediately available;” revealed the Mayor’s email (and email of other City employees) is deleted within a short period of time and not preserved; failed to respond to the majority of Granite’s second request; and may have improperly redacted and withheld information in various text messages involving prominent City officials. These issues forced Granite to file a lawsuit.
In late 2016, Granite submitted a site plan application for the project. Nashua City Staff, which included Ms. Marchant (among other individuals), initially determined the project complied with a local ordinance and, thus, qualified as elderly housing under the ordinance and would not require any variances.
When Mayor Donchess learned of that determination, he berated City Staff in a series of written and verbal communications. For example, in a text message on February 6, 2017, Mayor Donchess scolded Ms. Marchant (who was then in India attending a business and cultural exchange program) for giving the Project “the seal of approval” without first “demonstrating in detail why the decision was required.” Ms. Marchant attempted to alleviate the Mayor’s concerns, and she informed him she would schedule meetings with him, legal staff, and planning staff “on sensitive cases” in the future so the Mayor is “not put in this position again.”
That same day, Ms. Marchant communicated (from India), on a double-encrypted mobile text messaging application known as “WhatsApp,” with Planning Director Roger Houston (another member of City Staff) and Carrie Schena, the Urban Programs Manager for the City of Nashua, about her earlier conversation with Mayor Donchess. In these messages, Ms. Marchant stated, “Hopefully I took a little edge off for you,” in anticipation of the Mayor shedding his frustration on them as well in a meeting the next day. She also stated, “Someone from the neighborhood got to [Mayor Donchess] in a way that reflects very poorly on [Zoning Administrator] Carter [Falk],” another member of City Staff and the individual who advised Granite on November 22, 2017 of its approval of the Project. Mr. Houston suggested City Attorney Steve Bolton should attend their meeting with the Mayor so it would be “protected under attorney client privilege.”
The following morning, February 7, Ms. Schena, Mr. Houston, and Mr. Falk met with Mayor Donchess. Afterwards, Ms. Schena reported to Ms. Marchant and Mr. Houston via “WhatsApp” that the Mayor was “still very agitated” and “wanted [Mr. Falk] to explain himself and why he determined the elderly services met the criteria of the ordinance.” Ms. Schena stated the Mayor “wasn’t satisfied with the response that it was a group collaboration/decision.” She also stated the Mayor “felt he made it clear of what the City’s position was.” Ms. Marchant commiserated with them, stating, “So sorry that it was so awful.”
The ZBA heard the abutters’ appeal at its January 24 and February 14, 2017 meetings: After the Mayor’s tirades, City Staff made little to no effort to justify its position or defend its decision at these meetings. At the end of the February 14 meeting, the ZBA reversed City Staff’s determination, ruling the project did not qualify as elderly housing. Ms. MacKay is a member of the ZBA and voted against the project.
In the City’s initial production of records in response to Granite’s first Right-to-Know request, Granite discovered the aforementioned text message between Mayor Donchess and Ms. MacKay just 12 minutes after the conclusion of the February 14 meeting. Ms. MacKay texted Mayor Donchess: “Appeal of 122 Manchester St. denied. ZBA did its job. This is me Mariellen Jim 😊.” The Mayor responded, “That’s fantastic. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
The next day, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Kimberly Kleiner, advised that Ms. MacKay called as instructed: “Zoning held up neighbors appeal on 122 manchester – Mariellen called.” The same day, Ms. Marchant – again, one of the City Staff members involved in initially determining the Project qualified as elderly housing and required no zoning variances – also texted Mayor Donchess, from India: “[S]o happy to hear zba decision!” The Mayor responded, “Definitely!”
Granite’s Right-to-Know Requests
After the ZBA’s decision, Granite submitted a Right-to-Know request to the City. It asked for records, meetings minutes, communications (including text messages) between the various City departments and officials, and other documents concerning Granite’s application and the City’s review of the project.
The City’s initial response to the first Right-to-Know request included text messages between only (a) Mayor Donchess and Ms. Marchant; (b) Mayor Donchess and Ms. Kleiner; and (c) Mayor Donchess and Ms. MacKay. The City produced no other text messages concerning the project, and all but the text messages between Mayor Donchess and Ms. Marchant contained significant – and improper – redactions.
After Granite identified this deficiency, the City produced additional text messages two days later. These additional text messages included – for the first time – several messages on “WhatsApp” involving Mr. Houston, Ms. Schena, Ms. Marchant, and Ms. Kleiner. The City redacted a significant portion of these messages, claiming they were due to attorney-client privilege and an unrelated personnel matter.
Granite contended the City’s production, however, was still deficient: Granite alleged the City failed to produce text messages involving all the individual members of the ZBA; it had then only produced such messages involving Ms. MacKay. Nearly a month later, the City responded and provided emails from Jonathan “Jack” Currier (Chair of the ZBA); it stated, however, that Ms. MacKay “does not, as a matter of course, retain text messages.”
Granite sent a second Right-to-Know request to the City on June 29, 2017, which contained specific requests concerning several key events related to Granite’s site plan application and the project, broader follow-up requests concerning text messages involving Mayor Donchess, Ms. MacKay, Ms. Marchant, Ms. Kleiner, and Ms. Schena, and any new records generated by the City since the first Right-to-Know request. The City failed to respond to the second Right-to-Know request for nearly two weeks, alleging it “was located in the Mayor’s office, the victim of vacations and generally being ‘lost in the shuffle.’” The City also stated the requested records – some of which had already been produced in March – were not immediately available, and that “the time reasonably necessary to gather the documents and to determine whether the request, or portions thereof, shall be granted or denied, is six (6) months.”
After several communications between the parties, the City agreed to respond to six items in the second Right-to-Know request. Granite alleges, however, that the City failed to live up to that promise. For example, the City agreed to provide communications concerning meetings involving Mayor Donchess on February 7, 2017 (when he met with City Staff to scold them for approving the Project) and February 14, 2017 (when he communicated with Ms. MacKay concerning the ZBA’s reversal of the City’s approval of the project), 2017). It did not do so, however, and explained the City had a policy of deleting email after 30 days, and claimed “[t]he Mayor’s emails are subject to and have been deleted in accordance with this policy” and “are no long[er] subject to disclosure under the right to know law.” See id. The City disclosed this fact four months after it would have presumably deleted the Mayor’s emails from February 2017 under this policy.
The City did not respond to the remaining items in the second Right-to-Know request before Granite filed the Petition in late October – by then, three-and-a-half months later. The City began to submit additional responses to the second Right-to-Know request to Granite only after the Petition was filed, and many of those responses occurred after the City’s proposed six-month time frame.
Granite believes the City violated the Right-to-Know Law in several respects:
- The City’s Redactions of Text Messages
Granite is requesting that the Court order the City to disclose unredacted copies of various documents, including the “What’s App” text messages involving Ms. Marchant, Ms. Kleiner, and Ms. Schena.
- The Deletion of Mayor Donchess’s Emails
Granite also alleges the City’s reliance on its internal policy in refusing to disclose the Mayor’s emails and its admission that his emails were deleted violated the Right-to-Know Law. Granite has cited RSA 33-A:3-a, XXV (which requires municipalities to maintain administrative correspondence records for a minimum of one year) and RSA 33-A:3-a, XXVI (which requires other types of correspondence records to be maintained for various periods of time, none of which is limited to 30 days) in arguing the City’s document retention practices themselves violate the law. Granite argues the City should have retained the Mayor’s emails.
- The Deletion of Ms. MacKay’s Text Messages
Granite alleges the City’s failure to require its employees and officials, such as Ms. MacKay, to retain text messages violated the Right-to-Know Law. The City has argued text messages are not “governmental records” under RSA 91-A and not subject to disclosure.
No New Hampshire court has addressed this question. Courts in other jurisdictions, however, are concluding text messages are public or governmental records. For example, in Nissen v. Pierce County, 357 P.3d 45 (Wash. 2015), the Washington Supreme Court held text messages concerning work-related matters on an elected county prosecutor’s private cell phone were public records and subject to disclosure under Washington’s Public Records Act. Similarly, in City of Champaign v. Madigan, 992 N.E.2d 629 (Ill. App. 2013), an Illinois appellate court held, under similar language in a freedom of information act statute, that text messages sent to or from a city council member’s personal electronic device while the council was in session qualified as a public record. Id. at 639-40. Also, in Toensing v. Atty. Gen., 178 A.3d 1000 (Vt. 2017), the Vermont Supreme Court held that the records produced or acquired in the course of state business are “public records” under similar language in Vermont’s public records access statute, regardless whether they are located on the private accounts of state employees or officials. Id. at 1004. The Court held further that a government agency must ask state employees to determine whether they possess public records in digital form on their personal accounts when a requester asks for such communications that could qualify as “public records.” Id. at 1002.
Thus, Granite argues that, if a text message that Ms. MacKay and Mayor Donchess exchanged was created by either individual and concerned work-related matters, the Court may conclude it was created on behalf of the ZBA or on behalf of the Mayor’s office, and, thus, it is a governmental record and subject to disclosure under the Right-to-Know law.
- The City’s Delay in Responding to the Second Right-to-Know Request
Granite also points to the City’s undisputed failure to respond to the second Right-to-Know request within five business days and ultimate delay in its response as another violation of the Right-to-Know law. For this argument, it is relying on ATV Watch v. New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, 155 N.H. 434 (2007).
In ATV Watch, the New Hampshire Supreme Court held the Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) violated the Right-to-Know law by its delayed disclosure of documents concerning DRED’s intended purchase of a large tract of land in the Berlin area and its plan to develop all-terrain vehicles and other trails once the land was purchased. ATV submitted a Right-to-Know request to DRED in late 2004. On December 1, 2004, DRED indicated its intent to comply with ATV’s request but noted its need to consult with the Attorney General on matters of confidentiality. In January 2005, DRED provided ATV with certain information but indicated its intent to withhold other documents. The Supreme Court held “[t]he plain language of the [Right-to-Know law] does not allow for consideration of the factors applied by the trial court, such as “reasonable speed,” “oversight,” “fault,” “harm,” or “prejudice.” It vacated the trial court’s ruling in favor of DRED and remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether ATV’s lawsuit was necessary to make the documents available.
Granite argues the City’s blaming the lack of a timely response on the claim that Granite’s Right-to-Know request was “lost in the shuffle” is no different than the “oversight” alleged in ATV Watch.
- The City’s Delay in Disclosing Text Messages in Response to the First Right-to-Know Request
Granite also claims the City failed make a full disclosure of text messages in response to the First Right-to-Know request and delayed their disclosure. The first Right-to-Know request included a broad request for text messages from all City departments concerning the project. The City’s initial response to the First Right-to-Know Request occurred on February 27, 2017, several days after the five-day period required by RSA 91-A. The City’s response included only a limited set of text messages. Granite followed up and requested that the City supplement its disclosure twice. The City produced additional text messages on March 3 (the What’s App text messages). Then, on March 30 (a month and a half after the first Right-to-Know Request was sent), the City provided emails involving Mr. Currier (the Chair of the ZBA); and it did not provide any other text messages involving Ms. MacKay and admitted Ms. MacKay deletes her text messages.
Granite contends this conduct demonstrates another failure to abide by the strict time requirements of the statute, as noted in ATV Watch.
- The City’s Failure to Respond to Many of the Requests in the Second Right-to Know Request
Finally, Granite contends the City delayed its response to the second Right-to-Know request and delayed its related disclosures. The City claimed it needed six months to respond to that request. It then responded to only four items in the request, leaving many unanswered. It began responding to them only several months later, after Granite filed its petition. Granite alleges the City’s delay and failure to disclose this information violated the Right-to-Know law.
Granite’s Attorney’s Fees and Costs
Granite seeks to recover its attorneys’ fees and costs for the City’s alleged violations above because, it argues, this lawsuit was “necessary in order to enforce compliance with the provisions of this chapter or to address a purposeful violation of this chapter,” and the City knew or should have known that “the conduct engaged in was in violation of this chapter.” See RSA 91-A:8, I.
In Porter v. Town of Sandwich, Case No. 212-2014-CV-180 (Aug. 14, 2015), the Carroll County Superior Court awarded over $200,000 in attorney’s fees and costs to the homeowners (the Porters) for the denial of their Right to Know request for town records, emails, and other documents related to town approvals for a structure on the Squam Lake property adjoining his property. The Court ruled that emails and draft documents distributed among town officials constituted illegal, unposted meetings, and that the Porters were entitled to the emails, the documents, and pre-edited drafts of meeting minutes. The Court found the Town’s failure to timely disclose various documents based on a “good faith” mistake still violated the statute. The Court also found that private discussions between board of selectmen members in between public meetings about the Porters’ application violated the Right-to-Know law. With respect to attorney’s fees, the Court found that the lawsuit was necessary to enforce compliance with the statute because the Town did not produce some of the information requested until after the lawsuit was filed; and the Court also found the Town should have known its conduct violated the statute because it failed to articulate any legitimate reason or basis for withholding information that should have been disclosed.
Here, Granite contends the City’s conduct compels an award of attorney’s fees and costs, including, but not limited to: (a) its misapplication of statutory exemptions and privileges to the portions of the What’s App string it has redacted; (b) its deletion of Mayor Donchess’s emails; (c) its deletion of Ms. MacKay’s text messages; (d) its failure to respond to portions of the first Right-to-Know request; (e) its failure to respond to the second Right-to-Know request within five days; (f) the fact the City demanded six months to produce records responsive to other requests; and (g) its refusal to provide records in response to many of the items in the second Right-to-Know request before Granite filed its petition.
THIS BLOG POST IS A GUEST EDITORIAL.
Author: Maxim Ledoux
“These lawsuits are an absurd practice and noxious to open government.” That’s how the Associated Press quotes University of Kansas journalism professor Jonathan Peters, speaking about a troubling trend in recent years of government bodies suing citizens who seek disclosure of public documents through open-records laws. You can read the whole article at AP (“Governments turn tables by suing public records requesters”).
I know all about these types of absurd lawsuits. Last year the Tuftonboro board of selectmen (at the time: Carolyn Sundquist, Lloyd Wood, and Bill Marcussen) sued me and another Tuftonboro New Hampshire resident, Bob McWhirter, when we requested to inspect government records. They spent around $20,000 (and counting) in a vain attempt to charge us $.25 per page to inspect the records, even though New Hampshire’s Right to Know law states that “no fee shall be charged for the inspection or delivery, without copying, of governmental records, whether in paper, electronic, or other form.” The selectmen’s attorney, Richard Sager of Ossipee, argued in court that the law doesn’t make sense because, if read literally, it meant that the selectmen couldn’t charge us a fee. And they wanted to charge us a fee.
They lost their lawsuit when Carroll County Superior Court Judge Amy Ignatius ruled that they couldn’t charge us a fee. But as the AP quotes Mike Deshotels in its article, “You can lose even when you win.” Deshotels was sued by the Louisiana Department of Education when he requested school enrollment data. The DOE lost in court, like the Tuftonboro selectmen, but Deshotels incurred legal costs, like Bob and me, defending himself from an attack on his right to know what his government was doing.
These types of abusive lawsuits are happening all over the country, according to the AP. But in Michigan, the state House of Representatives unanimously (108–0) passed a bill this spring that would prohibit government bodies from suing citizens who are requesting documents. The bill needs to be passed by the Michigan Senate before becoming law.
Tuftonboro selectmen spent $20,000 of taxpayers’ money in an effort to make it more difficult to get access to public records. Would they have done that if it was their own $20,000? It’s easy to spend other people’s money. Even after the court’s ruling on August 8, the selectmen have yet to turn over a single email to me or Bob.
New Hampshire should make it illegal for government bodies to sue citizens who are requesting documents.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled today, September 21, 2017, that School Administrative Unit 55 is allowed to charge $7.49 to provide a 3-page email in electronic format. In the case of Taylor v. SAU 55, the court ruled that the charge for a thumb drive covers the actual cost of making a copy. The court ruled that the No Fee Provision of RSA 91-A:4, IV allows providing an email by thumb drive, reading delivery to mean the transfer of the email within the SAU, not delivery to Taylor. Taylor had asked that the email be forwarded to him, instead. The SAU had argued that forwarding the email would be a security risk and would not allow reliable confirmation of receipt. The court agreed with both points. The full court opinion is available here.
The Town of Tuftonboro, N.H. lost it’s effort to charge $0.15 per page to redact emails provided electronically. Judge Amy Ignatius in Carroll County Superior Court ruled that redacting emails electronically does not substantively change their format nor does it incur actual costs that can be charged. The town had not sought to be reimbursed for the time it takes employees to redact the emails, and they provided no evidence of other expenses.
Unlike most Right-to-Know Law cases where a citizen sues for access to records or meetings, in this case the Town of Tuftonboro took 2 of its residents to court. The town basically wanted the court to declare whether the town could charge for redacted records. Since the citizens had to respond to the preemptive lawsuit by hiring a lawyer, they sought help from supporters. The town sought for details about those supporters, but the court also denied that request. In spite of the burden imposed by the town on the citizens, the court did not award attorney’s fees or court costs because the issue of redaction costs was not settled law and therefor the town did not “know or should have known” it was improperly denying access. The town has 30 days until September 7, 2017 to appeal. The full court order is available here.
Unusual Right to Know Law Case Settles Before Supreme Court Argument
By: H. Boone Porter, III
A closely watched case, Porter, et al. v. Town of Sandwich, et al., Dkt. No. 212-2014-CV-00178 (Carroll County Superior Court), was recently settled on terms extremely favorable to the plaintiffs.* Under the settlement: (i) the Town withdrew its pending appeal to the Supreme Court with prejudice; (ii) the Superior Court’s orders that, among other relief, vacated a total of 6 Town administrative proceedings and mandated Town officials and employees to attend remedial training, collectively became a final, binding, and non-appealable judgment; (iii) the Town and the intervenors together agreed to reimburse the Porters $200,000 in attorneys’ fees of the $204,000 awarded by the Superior Court; and (iv) the Porters’ will dismiss 2 appeals of Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) decisions that are now moot.
This case highlights that the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) not only compels public bodies to disclose government records, but also regulates how public bodies convene and conduct meetings and how they deliberate and make decisions. When a public body violates these requirements, an aggrieved party may seek relief for: (i) reimbursing attorneys’ fees; (ii) vacating of administrative decisions; (iii) requiring public officials to attend remedial training; (iv) entering injunctions; and (v) imposing civil penalties on offending officials.
The underlying facts were complex and intertwined with those of 2 appeals of ZBA decisions the Porters simultaneously filed with the Superior Court. Ultimately, the Superior Court wrote a 47-page order finding that the Town had engaged in systemic violations of the RTKL by: (i) conducting unnoticed meetings of public bodies; (ii) deliberating upon, and then reaching decisions for, pending cases in unnoticed meetings; (iii) participating with Town counsel in conduct intended to circumvent the spirit and purpose of the RTKL; and (iv) failing to disclose requested public records. A simplified statement of the facts necessary to understand the Porter’s RTKL claims is recited below.
The Porters owned an undeveloped lakefront lot. In 2014, the owners of an abutting lakefront lot (the “Intervenors”) erected a building in apparent violation of the Town’s zoning ordinance. When negotiations between the principals failed, the Porters petitioned the Board of Selectmen to conduct a hearing under RSA 43:1 to determine: (i) if the building permit issued to the Intervenors was invalid; or, alternatively, (ii) if validly issued, the building erected exceeded the permit’s authorization.
The Selectmen denied the Porters’ request. During a public meeting, the Selectmen announced that they had already discussed this matter among themselves and were “interpreting” the zoning ordinance in a manner unfavorable to the Porters. The Porters then filed two separate appeals of adverse administrative decisions with the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).
Learning of the Porter’s planned first appeal, the chairman of the ZBA e-mailed all ZBA members, with a copy accidentally sent to Mr. Porter. The e-mail made false accusations against the Porters, claiming that they were lobbying Town land use boards to concur with their interpretation of the law and that they were violating ZBA rules governing administrative appeals. The e-mail instructed ZBA members to destroy all copies of the Porters’ appeal. The chairman’s life partner, who served as the ZBA’s land use secretary, replied to all ZBA members that she had “instructed” the Town’s administrative assistant and the Selectmen’s assistant to “confiscate” any filing made by the Porters.
Mr. Porter sent three replies. First, he stated that the e-mail’s factual allegations were unfounded and negatively prejudiced the Porters’ appeal. Second, he warned that “confiscation” of his filing would have serious legal consequences. Finally, he noted that the ZBA chairman’s e-mail constituted a meeting of a public body in violation of the RTKL. Several days later, the Porters filed their first ZBA appeal, and shortly thereafter, filed their second.
The ZBA denied the Porters’ first appeal concerning the Selectmen’s refusal to conduct a public hearing under RSA 43:1, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because of time bar. The ZBA relied upon a zoning ordinance provision that applied only to applicants whose building permits had been denied, and which was inapplicable to the facts presented. The ZBA next denied the Porter’s second appeal relating to the Selectmen’s erroneous interpretation of the zoning ordinance, claiming it had no jurisdiction to reverse the Selectmen’s decision not to hold a hearing under RSA 43:1.
This second decision was based on the ZBA’s incorrect finding that the Selectmen had not interpreted the zoning ordinance. A transcript of a recording of the Selectmen’s meeting announcing its decision conclusively disproved the ZBA’s “finding.” During this second proceeding, the ZBA did not permit the Porters to argue the existence of jurisdictional facts.
The Porters filed motions for reconsideration. Shortly before the scheduled hearing (where the ZBA was supposed to deliberate upon and decide both motions in public view), the Porters discovered a copy of the ZBA’s denial decision of one of their motions on the front seat of their car. The denial decision recited facts not in the record and the names of the ZBA members appeared under signature lines. The Porters also found a redacted transmittal e-mail to all ZBA members. (Unbeknownst to the Porters, a similar denial decision and transmittal e-mail had also been sent to all ZBA members concerning the other pending motion for reconsideration.)
The redacted e-mail stated the accompanying denial decision was the recommendation of Town counsel prepared on the direction of the ZBA’s chairman. The e-mail instructed ZBA members to carefully consider the denial decision on an individual basis; admonished them to be prepared to discuss its contents at the upcoming public hearing; and advised them of the precise wording to be used in making a motion to adopt the denial decision.
Alarmed, the Porters made a RTKL document production request to discover what other covert proceedings might have occurred. The Town, however, did not timely or completely respond. At the hearing on the motions for reconsideration, the Porters and their counsel were prohibited from speaking, and both motions were denied. The Town finally produced documents revealing that Town employees had exchanged e-mails disparaging and mocking the Porters throughout the administrative proceedings. The Porters then filed their RTLK lawsuit.
The Superior Court determined the Selectmen had decided to deny the Porters’ request for a hearing under RSA 43:1 outside of a publicly noticed hearing. The Selectmen testified they had decided the matter at the end of a public hearing but their decision had not been included in the minutes. The Superior Court found this testimony “not credible.”
The Court ruled the pre-hearing circulation of the draft denial decisions was a scheme to unlawfully circumvent the RTKL. It determined the drafts were signals to ZBA members how the chairman wanted the appeals decided and that typing individual ZBA member’s names under the signature lines was, in the circumstances, an improper solicitation of votes. The Court also found that the Town failed to timely produce public documents requested under the RTKL. The Court concluded that the Town knew or should have known it had engaged in “obvious” and “clear” violations of the RTKL, and these violations would have continued but for the Porters’ lawsuit.
As stated above, the Superior Court: (i) declared that the Town violated the RTKL; (ii) vacated all of the Board of Selectmen and ZBA proceedings as being irredeemably tainted by unfairness; (iii) ordered designated Town officials and employees to complete a specified training program by a court-approved independent attorney; and (iv) awarded the Porters their attorneys’ fees. The Court declined to enter an injunction, deeming its training remedy sufficient to prevent future violations, and concluded civil penalties should not be assessed against Town officials because they acted with poor judgment and not in bad faith. It is unclear if this last finding was made to protect the Town’s right to maintain insurance coverage, but in fact, it had no coverage for violations of the RTKL.
Footnote(*): The author was one of the Plaintiffs in this case. This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended to be, nor does it constitute, legal advice. Consequently, this article may not be relied upon as legal advice by any person. The facts and circumstances of each RTKL case are unique. Persons seeking legal advice regarding the RTKL or any other legal matter should consult with competent legal counsel.
In a 9-page decision, Justice Diane Nicolosi ruled for the Merrimack County Superior Court that the Merrimack Valley School District School Board violated the Right-to-Know Law. They violated the law by considering vacancies on the Board and teacher resignations during non-public sessions. They also violated the law when they voted on one Board vacancy by secret ballot. Their non-public session minutes violated the law by not recording the names of administrators who attended those sessions. The plaintiffs failed to prove that the Board didn’t address audibility problems at their public meetings. The Board was enjoined from similar future violations of the law. The full order in Andrus v. Merrimack Valley School District School Board, No. 217-2016-CV-30 may be found here.
According to an article in the Union Leader, the Town of Sandwich has been ordered to pay over $200,000 for attorney’s fees and costs after they were found by Carroll County Superior Court to have violated the Right-to-Know Law. The case was brought by H. Boone Porter and alleged several violations of RSA 91-A. Sandwich was found in violation in a court order issued on August 14, 2015. Due to the complexity of the legal effort and associated fees and costs, the court continued to work on the case after the initial order. The court issued another court order on June 23, 2016 where Judge Charles Temple awarded $196,507.00 in attorney’s fees and $8,083.47 in costs for the claims where the plaintiff prevailed. The Town of Sandwich is considering whether to appeal the award.
Judge Diane M. Nicolosi denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging several violations of the Right-to-Know Law against the Merrimack Valley School District. A separate claim on electioneering was dismissed.
In the court ruling dated May 10, 2016, the judge ruled that the statute of limitations and doctrine of laches do not apply to the RSA 91-A lawsuit. Similarly, the claims were ruled not moot even though they extend back to 2004 because the lawsuit only seeks to enjoin future violations. The lawsuit claims the MVSD board illegally deliberated and voted in non-public session to fill board vacancies. It also claims that administrators who attended non-public meetings were not recorded in the minutes. The judge also ruled that all parts of a public meeting must be audible, even when no member is attending by phone.
Since the motion to dismiss was denied, the lawsuit will move forward. The hearing is scheduled for June 27, 2016 at 10:00 a.m in Merrimack County Superior Court.