To help celebrate Sunshine Week, Right to Know NH is publishing this quest opinion.
By Justin Silverman and Laura Simoes
When Dr. Ed Kois left his private practice after 30 years for a position at the Manchester VA Medical Center, he expected most of his new patients’ injuries to have occurred on the battlefield. Instead, he found many of them to have been caused by poor medical care.
Frustrated by the lack of improvements hospital administrators were willing to make, Dr. Kois and several colleagues in 2016 went public. They used whistleblower protections and the power of the free press to tell their story and shine a light on the deplorable conditions at the Manchester hospital. Just hours after The Boston Globe reported a story based on information provided by Dr. Kois, the federal government removed two top officials at the hospital and ordered a full review of the facility.
Dr. Kois died in 2019 and was posthumously honored by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. His insistence on exposing government incompetence should be remembered as we celebrate Sunshine Week—a national celebration of transparency beginning March 15. Whether through whistleblowers like Kois or the use of state and federal freedom of information laws, knowing about our government is crucial to maintaining trust in public institutions.
This trust is essential to our democracy and increasingly, given the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, our safety. When government authorities provide guidance on how slow the spread of the virus, for example, we need to know the facts and data supporting their remarks. When difficult decisions are made regarding medical care or the curtailment of civil liberties, we ultimately need to know how these decisions were made and why. Only through this transparency can we understand for ourselves if government is acting in our best interest.
The need for trust in our public institutions is why we have whistleblower protections and the New Hampshire Right to Know Law. This law allows citizens to request certain records that can show us how our tax dollars are being spent and why public officials make the decisions they do. The law provides us, for example, payroll records of public employees, police logs, government expense reports, school construction plans and restaurant inspections. The law provides insight into how our government is working so we can know if and how it can be improved.
While Dr. Kois relied on his experience at the VA hospital to inform the community, other citizen watchdogs are using public records to expose questionable public policies. Nashua resident Laurie Ortolano’s use of property records and Right to Know Law requests recently led to an overhaul of the City’s assessing office. Hampton resident David Lang and the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire used public records several years ago to show that public employee health insurance premiums were comingled with other funds. Local municipalities received millions of dollars in refunds as a result.
We are all capable of sharing these kinds of stories, but only if we take steps to strengthen our state’s Right to Know Law. We can do so by:
– Supporting efforts to establish a Right to Know Law ombudsman. Requesters have few remedies when denied public records. An ombudsman would resolve disputes and provide citizens recourse outside an often costly and time-consuming legal process.
– Resisting additional fees. A bill was recently proposed in the state legislature that would have allowed agencies to charge citizens for records that exceed a certain time to produce. Such fees can be prohibitive to many citizens and they undermine the spirit of public record laws. This information, after all, is already owned by the public.
– Demanding transparency. As a New Hampshire resident you are entitled to public records. While the majority of public employees act in good faith, there are some who will abuse exemptions in the Right to Know Law to deny you the right to learn about government. Don’t accept “no” for an answer. Dig in and fight for the information you’re entitled to under the law.
Lastly, consider this Sunshine Week as a reminder of our year-round obligation to government transparency. The burden is on all of us — not just those like Dr. Kois — to fight secrecy each and every day. Trust in public institutions relies on our ability to shine sunlight wherever we find shadows.
Justin Silverman is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Laura Simoes is executive director of the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu issued a statement today clarifying the Right-to-Know Law’s provisions on emergency meetings of public bodies in response to questions about how boards can reduce risks during the Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. The statement is available here.
The statement highlights existing provisions in RSA 91-A that allow for emergency meetings of public bodies that bypass the requirement to have a quorum of the body physically present at the location of the meeting. The statement also highlights additional procedural requirements in the law for such a meeting. It notes that such a meeting still requires that the public be given proper notice and public access to the meeting.
We also note that public bodies should do what they can to provide remote access to the public, such as public access cable channels or live streaming over the Internet. This not only reduces risk of exposure to members of the public but also to any members of the public body who do participate in the meetings in person.
The Sunshine Week panel sponsored by the New England First Amendment Coalition and the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communiations for March 19, 2020, has been postponed. We will update this blog when a new date is scheduled.
NOTE: This event has been postponed. We will update this blog when a new date is scheduled.
The New England First Amendment Coalition and the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications will present “Keeping the Light On: Holding Government Accountable” from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on March 19 at the Loeb School, 749 East Industrial Drive in Manchester, N.H.
The Sunshine Week program is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.
The goal of Sunshine Week — March 15-21 this year with related events occurring throughout the month — is to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
GILLES BISSONNETTE | Legal Director for the ACLU of New Hampshire
THE HON. N. WILLIAM DELKER | New Hampshire Superior Court Justice
CASEY MCDERMOTT (moderator) | Reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio
EMILY GRAY RICE | City Solicitor for the City of Manchester, New Hampshire
GREGORY V. SULLIVAN | First Amendment Attorney at Malloy & Sullivan
From NEFAC press release.
Out of an abundance of caution due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the March 2020 meeting of Right to Know NH will be held by conference call instead of an in person meeting.
Right to Know NH will meet on Saturday, March 21, 2020 by conference call. We will discuss Right to Know (RSA 91-A) bills which have been submitted for the current 2020 legislative session and review Sunshine Week. The public is welcome to join us. If you’d like to join us, click on “Send us a message” under CONTACT US to the right and ask for the phone number to call.
Right to Know NH will meet on Saturday, February 1, 2020 at 9:00 A.M. in Concord, NH at 8 North Main Street in the office of the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers. We will discuss Right to Know (RSA 91-A) bills which have been submitted for the current 2020 legislative session. The public is welcome to join us.
The Right-to-Know Law requires meeting minutes whenever a quorum of a public body or agency has a meeting per RSA 91-A:2.
HB 1546 would allow for a meeting of a quorum of the county delegation without any record of such meeting when all they do is approve minutes. No meeting minutes would also mean no record of who was in attendance, how they voted regarding the approval of the minutes, nor a record of comments/corrections regarding the minutes being discussed.
The RSA 91- Preamble states “Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.” Allowing the County Delegation to meet without maintaining a record of who met, when they met, and the vote tally of who approved the minutes creates a veil of secrecy which contradicts the purpose of RSA 91-A.
County delegations should not be exempt from the requirement to record minutes of all their meetings per RSA 91-A:2.
Please contact your legislator and ask them to oppose HB 1546.