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Senate Bill to establish an Ombudsman to resolve complaints

NEW HAMPSHIRE’S right-to-know law is meant to ensure transparency and accountability in our government, but citizens often run into roadblocks attempting to get state and local agencies to live up to the letter and intent of the law.

Currently, the right-to-know law (RSA 91-A) requires citizens to file a petition in Superior Court to resolve any right-to-know grievance they may have with a public body or agency. This requirement establishes a high burden and cost on all parties.

The Center for Public Integrity, evaluated the freedom of information laws of all 50 states as part of its 2015 State Integrity Investigation. In the Category of Public Access to Information, New Hampshire earned a grade of F, ranking 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. This low score was because all appeals of Chapter 91-A requests must go through the court system and because the law sets a high bar for the recovery of attorney fees and other costs.

Last year in House Bill 178, the Legisalture established a 13-member commission to study processes to resolve right to know complaints with the goal of reducing costs for citizens, court system, and public bodies and agencies.

The commission discussed alternative mechanisms to resolve right-to-know grievances and agreed that an “express lane” process to resolve right-to-know grievances which is easier, cheaper, and faster is needed.

After a review of the complaint resolution options used by all 50 states, the Commission recommended an Ombudsman with oversight by a Citizens’ Right-to-Know Appeals Commission which would balance the needs for an easier, cheaper, and faster grievance resolution process while maintaining independence, credibility, impartiality and minimizing any political influence.

In lieu of filing a petition in the Superior Court under RSA 91-A, the citizen will be able to file a complaint with the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman will process the complaint, acquire and review documents and conducts interviews if necessary. He will determine whether there has been a violation of RSA 91-A and issue a ruling within 30 days. The ruling can include ordering any remedy for a violation which is specified in RSA 91-A. The Commission anticipates it is likely this alternative process will result in savings to citizens, public bodies and agencies, and the court system.

Along with the Ombudsman, a Citizens’ Right to Know Appeals Commission will be established. It will hire an attorney to be the Ombudsman, evaluate the Ombudsman’s performance periodically, and create educational materials on Chapter 91-A.

The commission reviewed right-to-know education available within all 50 states and determined that education is essential to reduce the risks, costs, and time associated with resolving right-to-know grievances. Education will increase compliance with the law, thus reducing the number of right-to-know violations which will, in the long run, reduce the costs of addressing and resolving violations. The Commission recommended Right-to-know training be established for all public officials and employees who are subject to the right-to-know law to increase awareness, compliance, and minimize violations.

To maintain trust between the people and their government, the establishment of the Ombudsman and Citizens’ Right to Know Appeals Commission will be indispensable in protecting the ideal of a citizen government whereby every citizen is provided open access to government records, advance notice of meetings meant for public scrutiny, and transparency and openness of government actions.

To view the Commission’s findings click here.

Senate Bill SB 555 has been introduced by Senator Bob Giuda to implement the Ombudsman and Citizens’ Right to Know Appeals Commission.  A hearing on SB 555 is scheduled for Tuesday January 23 at 10:15 in Room SH 100.  Please contact your legislators and ask them to support this bill and make the process of resolving right to know grievances easier for all citizens.

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