Keeping the Light On in New Hampshire: Celebrating Sunshine Week

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | justin@nefac.org
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides for the “right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”   But what does that mean and how does it work?   The New England First Amendment Coalition and the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications are celebrating Sunshine Week with an online expert panel discussion called Keeping the Light On: Holding Government Accountable. The webinar will examine the values of open and responsive government and how all citizens play a role.   The discussion will be held online from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on March 15. The event is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

Keeping the Light On: Holding Government Accountable   March 15 | 6:30 p.m.  
Register Here  or Email loebschool@loebschool.org  
Speakers Include:
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

RTKNH meeting Saturday 2/20 @ 9 a.m

Right to Know NH will meet on Saturday, February 20, 2021 @ 9 AM by Zoom video conference. We will discuss Right to Know (RSA 91-A) bills for the current legislative session.  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 zoom conference meeting link.

HB 471 would make police disciplinary hearings public

RTKNH supports House Bill 471.

Police officers should not have a privacy interest with respect to their official conduct. When their conduct is called into question and brought forth before the Police Standards and Training Council there is a significant and compelling public interest in the conduct and activities of both the officer and the Council.  The public has a right to know the process undertaken by the Council during an officer’s disciplinary hearing.

Disclosure of police misconduct is in the public interest.  The New Hampshire Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency agrees and recommends “Make the existing Exculpatory Evidence Schedule (EES)” a public record as noted in their Final Report (Recommendation # 22). 

Police, by the nature of their duties and power, must be held to a higher standard.  That higher standard must include transparency regarding their conduct and the process performed by the Council to review and take action regarding such misconduct. The Council’s disciplinary hearings should be open to public scrutiny to allow for adequate checks and balances to ensure bad behavior or inadequate action cannot hide behind a veil of secrecy and further erode the public’s trust.

How to Make a Right to Know Request video now available

Right to Know NH (RTKNH) and The School District Governance Association (SDGA) recently conducted a webinar on how to make an effective Right to Know request.  The Right-to-Know law (RSA 91-A) is straightforward but the inexperienced can stumble over pitfalls. 

Some of the common pitfalls citizens may experience regarding filing right to know requests are:

  • Not knowing your rights before submitting request
  • Submitting request to someone other than the custodian of the records
  • Failing to be specific enough in describing records
  • Failing to verify record exemptions claimed by the custodian
  • Paying for copies when inspection of records would suffice

Watch the Video Recording of the webinar here to learn about your rights to access public records.

More training materials related to the Right-to-Know Law.

HB 566 addresses requirement to disclose minutes which were previously undisclosed

 

RTKNH supports House Bill 566 with an amendment to the bill’s current language.

Minutes and decisions reached in nonpublic sessions used to discuss the acquisition, sale, or lease of property are often sealed because the release of minutes to the public could “render the proposed action ineffective”.

In this case, the information may be withheld until the circumstances that would “render the proposed action ineffective” no longer apply. This is current law.

Once a contractual commitment to acquire, sell, or lease property has been signed by all parties, the proposed action has been finalized.  Upon contract signing, the proposed action has become effective and binding on all parties so the circumstances for not disclosing the minutes no longer applies and public release of the minutes can no longer “render the proposed action ineffective”. 

The preamble to the right-to-know law 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.”

While public bodies should interpret the existing law and release minutes after contract finalization, often this does not happen.  The law needs to be clarified to make this requirement clear.

To ensure the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions, and records regarding the acquisition, sale, or lease of property,  the following amended language is recommended:

“An exception shall apply to those minutes generated from subparagraph II(d), which may be unsealed at any time but which will automatically be unsealed after one year unless a majority of the members vote that the minutes should remain sealed. closing or contract finalization.”

Additionally, any vote to continue to not disclose the minutes should be taken in public session.

 

 

HB 481 will create an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know complaints

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.

In 2017, the passage of HB 178 established a commission to study processes to resolve Right-to-Know complaints.

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 was the recommendation after considering a number of alternatives.

The origins of this bill come from the recommendations of the 13 member Legislative Right-to-Know Study Commission created by HB 178.  

The Study Commissions Final Report can be read at http://www.orol.org/rtk/rtknh/2017-10-31-HB178-Commission-Report.pdf

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.  The town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.

Please support this bill which creates a low cost, speedy, credible, and impartial grievance resolution process for all parties.

House Committee Hearing is scheduled for 1/26 @ 1pm.
Please register your support for HB 481 before the hearing by:

  1. Registering your support via the Remote Sign In Sheet
  2. Submitting testimony via email to  HouseJudiciaryCommittee@leg.state.nh.us

Review all Right to Know bills here.

Guidelines for remote committee meetings, testifying, and registering your position on House bills

Previous blog postings related to this topic.

SB 39 Bars Disclosure of Police Misconduct

David Saad of Rumney NH, a member of RTKNH, provided the following testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition of SB 39 which would exempt police records and misconduct from public disclosure:

Part I, Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution and the Right-to-Know law are the fundamental prerequisites for a self-governing people. As the legislature made clear in the preamble to the Right-to-Know law: “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.” The Right-to-Know Law helps further our State Constitutional requirement that “the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”  To categorically exempt all law enforcement officer personnel files and investigations would violate the Part 1, Article 8 of the NH Constitution.

The determination of whether certain records should be exempt often comes down to a balance between privacy interests and a public’s interest in disclosure.  The courts use the following 3 steps to evaluate whether disclosure constitutes an invasion of privacy:

  • Is there a privacy interest at stake that would be invaded by the disclosure?
  • Would disclosure inform the public about the conduct and activities of its government?
  • Balance the public interest in disclosure against the government’s interest in non-disclosure and the individual’s privacy interest in non-disclosure.

Police officers should not have a privacy interest with respect to their official conduct.   

When it comes to the behavior of the police in their official capacity, especially when it concerns misconduct, there is no privacy or confidentiality interest in nondisclosure. Police officers perform vital functions on behalf of the public, and their misconduct creates the potential for considerable social harm.  Police officers are trusted with one of the most basic and necessary functions of civilized society, securing and preserving public safety.

Police, by the nature of their duties and power, must be held to a higher standard.  That higher standard must include transparency regarding their misconduct.  Their conduct must be open to public scrutiny to allow for adequate checks and balances to ensure bad behavior cannot hide behind a veil of secrecy, erode the public’s trust, or bring harm to those they swear to protect.

Additional testimony submitted by the ACLU.

To record your opposition to this bill contact the Senate Judiciary Committee via the remote sign in sheet.

To view RTKNH’s position on all Right to Know Bills, click here.

Right to Know Bills before the Legislature

Right to Know NH has published a list of bills which are before the NH Legislature. We also note the position RTKNH will take on these bills.

Our blog also provides instructions for looking up the details of a bill and how to contact your legislator to voice your opinion on these bills.

With Covid-19 and the legislature conducting remote meetings, the procedures for testifying on bills have been updated to provide for remote access.

Webinar on How to Make a Right to Know Request Friday 1/22 @ 7:30 pm

The School District Governance Association (SDGA) and Right to Know NH (RTKNH) will conduct a webinar on how to make an effective Right to Know request.  David Saad, President of RTKNH will be the presenter. The Right-to-Know law (RSA 91-A) is straightforward but the inexperienced can stumble over pitfalls.  Did you know, for instance, that the law does not require any public body to answer questions? You must ask for existing documents or your curiosity will go unsatisfied. Learn many more useful tips during this free webinar scheduled for Friday, January 22, 7:30 – 8:30 pm.
Registration is free, but required in order to receive a Zoom invitation. 

To register click here:  SDGA Right to Know Webinar

Video of Webinar here.

RTKNH meeting Saturday 1/16 @ 9 a.m

Right to Know NH will meet on Saturday, January 16, 2021 @ 9 AM by Zoom video conference. We will discuss Right to Know (RSA 91-A) bills for the upcoming 2021 legislative session.  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 zoom conference meeting link.