Our Right-to-Know Law is failing. The Center for Public Integrity, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, evaluated the freedom of information laws of all 50 states as part of its broader 2015 State Integrity Investigation. New Hampshire ranked 49th, a mere one point ahead of Wyoming which holds the worst score.
Our government belongs to us. Enshrined in Part 1 Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution, we have the right to know what our government is doing on our behalf. Right to Know New Hampshire continues to fight for improvements to the Right-to-Know law (RSA 91-A) to make our government more open, more accessible, and more accountable. I offer the following three ideas for legislative changes which would make it easier for us to exercise our right to a more open and transparent government.
First, no fees to inspect government records. The records of our government belong to the people and a citizen should not be charged fees to look at any record. Consider a citizen or news reporter who notices something odd like a decision of a board that came out of nowhere or an expenditure that does not seem to be in the public’s best interest. Through public records, they investigate to identify illegal decisions made by public officials or to root out public corruption. Why should the person requesting records pay fees when the records 1) already belong to the citizens, 2) they contribute to the public’s understanding of government’s activities, and 3) they inform voters of how elected officials and public employees are conducting business on our behalf? Charging citizens a fee to access records gives public agencies the ability to construct toll booths along the information highway on route toward the truth. Many citizens would run out of money long before they reached their destination.
A representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate. Everyone is entitled to public information regarding the official acts and affairs of government. Providing citizens with such information is an essential government function and should be an integral part of the routine duties of public officers and employees. House Bill 606, which is currently being considered by the House of Representatives, makes it explicitly clear that nothing may be charged to inspect a governmental record. I urge everyone to support passage of this bill as it would insure that inspection of our records is freely available to all.
Second, there should be a record when all public boards meet. Public boards across the state continue to meet in complete secrecy. When boards meet with an attorney or negotiate with a union they don’t have to do any of the usual things for public meetings: they provide no public notice, the meeting is closed to the public, and no record is kept. At the very least, a basic record should exist that states a meeting took place to provide a paper trail while still respecting confidentiality. House Bill 1417 would have outlawed the veil of secrecy that surrounds these meetings, but the billed was killed in the House.
Third, improve enforcement of the law. A law is only as good as the enforcement mechanisms in place to insure compliance. The Right-to-Know law leaves it entirely up to individual citizens to enforce compliance, and this enforcement can be done only through the courts. For most citizens, filing a lawsuit in court is intimidating, time consuming, costly and represents a significant barrier to exercising their right to know. It’s a long, arduous, and financial struggle in which the citizen bears the sole burden, yet when a public official or public employee diminishes government transparency by violating the law we all lose.
Attempts over the last few years to establish an independent arbiter that would hear citizen complaints and mediate them outside of a courtroom have failed to pass the legislature. New Hampshire desperately needs an independent arbiter to free up the courts and help citizens enforce their right to know without indebting themselves in the process.
I call on all citizens, public officials, and legislators to work with Right to Know NH to put forth legislation that will bring the letter of the Right-to-Know law closer to the spirit of the law and help all citizens freely exercise their right of access to government meetings and records.
David Saad is President of Right to Know NH, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving adherence to and strengthening the Right-to-Know Law (RSA 91-A).
This article was also published in the Union Leader.
Right to Know New Hampshire has authored and submitted to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, three bills to bring the letter of the right to know law closer to the spirit of the law. These bills, which amend the Right-To-Know law (RSA 91-A), will help to increase public disclosure and improve government transparency.
House Bill 2016-H-2581 requires the content for nonpublic meeting minutes meet the same minimum standard as public meeting minutes. Historically, some public agencies have skirted the spirit of the right to know law by producing nonpublic minutes with less content than their public minutes counterparts. This bill will now require that both public and nonpublic minutes meet the same minimum content requirements including the names of members present, persons appearing before the governmental agency, a brief description of the subject discussed and all final decisions made. With few exceptions, the public has the right to know who attended and what transpired during a nonpublic meeting. This bill will increase your ability to exercise that right and to know the actions of your government.
House Bill 2016-H-2582 requires that when a vote is taken during a nonpublic meeting, the minutes of that meeting shall record all votes such that each member’s vote is recorded, so you, the voter, will know how your elected officials are representing you. The law is currently vague in regards to how votes are to be recorded during nonpublic sessions, allowing for the possibility that the exact voting record of each public official is not recorded. Since the public is excluded from nonpublic sessions, any degree of secrecy in the way that our government officials vote diminishes government transparency, and accountability. With this bill, the exact vote of each public official is required to be recorded in the meeting minutes.
House Bill 2016-H-2580 requires that when a quorum of the public body convenes for the specific purposes of strategy or negotiations related to collective bargaining or for consultation with legal counsel, a record of the meeting must be kept. The record only contains minimal information such as meeting place, date, time, and the people in attendance. Currently, the law does not require any record be kept of such meetings. Having no record of such meetings raises concerns among the public that our government is conducting business in secret. A simple record that a meeting took place does not jeopardize the privileged nature of these meetings, but does help to remove the veil of secrecy and provide a greater level of public disclosure and government transparency.
Government transparency is a not a partisan issue. It is a core value in a democracy and helps voters make informed decisions. Yet, when our state, counties, school districts, and municipal government agencies meet behind closed doors, government transparency becomes limited. While there are some legitimate reasons why these agencies may exclude the public from attending nonpublic meetings, these meetings should still be sufficiently documented to ensure a record is kept of all actions and discussions which occurred during nonpublic meetings. These three bills will help advance the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions, and records of all public bodies.
Citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of their government.
Part I, Article 8 of The New Hampshire Constitution states that government should be open, accessible, accountable, and responsive. RSA 91-A, known as the Right-To-Know Law states “Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society.” The purpose of the Right-To-Know Law “is to ensure the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.” Government transparency is a prerequisite for government accountability.
Please help us protect our rights to an open and transparent government by contacting the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee
(email: HouseJudiciaryCommittee@leg.state.nh.us ), and asking them to support all three bills.
To learn more about how you can further help RTKNH improve our rights for an open and transparent government, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org