N.H.’s right-to-know law is vital — and how it can be improved
The third week of March is better known as Sunshine Week, an annual initiative that raises awareness of and promotes discussions about government transparency and freedom of information. Sunshine Week, started in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, runs this year from March 15 through 21 — coinciding roughly with James Madison’s birthday on March 16 and the first day of spring.
Though government transparency is an evergreen issue, Sunshine Week is particularly timely this year. On March 2, the New York Times reported that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton used a private email server rather than an official State Department email account during her tenure as secretary, a possible violation of federal records-keeping requirements. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, legislators in Concord have been debating a number of bills related to RSA 91-A, better known as the “right-to-know” law, which makes everything from meeting minutes to public employee salary information accessible to citizens. Open records laws aren’t just for newspapers — any citizen or civic group can file a right-to-know request with their town or city or a state agency. And, at the federal level, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are used to access public documents.
“If people do not pay attention to what their government is doing, chaos ensues.” — Loret Simonds of Right to Know New Hampshire
Among the bills being debated in New Hampshire is HB 646, a measure sponsored by Rep. Pat Long (D-Manchester) that would allow municipalities to charge a fee for the time it takes to retrieve and compile documents as part of a right-to-know request. Supporters of the bill say the charges will compensate public employees for the time it takes to process complex requests, while opponents argue that the bill will create another barrier to requesting public documents already available by law. Legislators in the House have tabled the bill, but there’s a chance it could come back.
To celebrate Sunshine Week, The Sound recently spoke with Loret Simonds, a Marlborough resident and president of Right to Know New Hampshire, a statewide group that advocates for transparency at all levels of government. The interview has been condensed and edited.
What does Right to Know New Hampshire do?
We started forming about three years ago this month. We’re a group of citizens from across the state who were having right-to-know problems in our own towns. Each individual came to realize that the law was not very well-known and nobody was trying to protect it. … We formed up to start trying to protect the law … and also to improve some areas of the law that are really confusing for public officials and get them in trouble a lot. Good officials get in trouble by accident, and rogue officials get in trouble on purpose, using gray areas to skirt the law. We realized that the gray areas need to be cleared up … so that when people read the law, they didn’t have to guess at it.
Why is the right-to-know law important?
(The law) first provides citizens the right to know what government is doing and how it’s spending tax dollars on their behalf. If people do not pay attention to what their government is doing, chaos ensues. If people aren’t going to board of selectmen meetings, selectmen can get arrogant … cronyism ensues, people get appointments because they’re friends, people get hired because they’re friends … bidding processes tend to fall to the wayside. … Right-to-know tends to pull in behavior on obeying … all the public municipality laws. Without right-to-know, none of those laws would be adhered to.
How well is New Hampshire’s right-to-know law working?
When citizens are making sure they’re taking advantage of their rights, it works very well. It stops a lot of crap. It’s amazing what it stops — you just need people in towns who are willing to (go to meetings).
So it’s vital for residents to be more engaged and paying attention to local government?
Exactly. … Without right-to-know, people would run amok. Sunishine Week is important. When you put a light on sin, sin has a way of cleaning itself up. If you allow the darkness to stay and don’t ever … look at what’s going on, it will continue and get worse as time goes on.
Advocates in Massachusetts are calling for reforms to the state’s open records laws. How could New Hampshire improve its own right-to-know processes?
… What we need to do in New Hampshire is clarify the laws. … Another thing that needs to be cleared up is (laws regarding meeting) minutes. (Minutes) can be as vague as (officials) want to make them. Having good minutes to tell you what’s going on is a good thing. How minutes are recorded and what’s put in them needs to be clearly stated.
Making copies of documents is often an issue; should communities switch to electronic records?
They should as much as they can. It would be better. But you have some towns … that are very small. Not all towns will be able to do that. … But I think towns on their own are finding it’s a lot easier to do electronic files and keep it that way.
One of the things we try to do is to make pinpointed requests, so that we’re not going in and fishing (for documents) that creates a lot of work and time for a town office. … You want to give officials a chance. Even when they’re bad, be fair and rise above. We try to teach people how to make right-to-know requests and pinpoint what they’re looking for. If you do end up in court, the town can’t come back to the judge and say, “They were asking for everything.” And we try to help people understand how to make requests. Also, never say why you want (records); all it does is give you a chink in your armor. Never give a reason, just give a simple request.
What’s your organization’s position on HB 646?
There’s no way in this law to stop any unfairness about how its applied or how much can be charged. It’s a lousy bill. It will force people to not go in and find out what’s going on in town.
Right to Know New Hampshire’s next meeting is Saturday, March 21 at 9 a.m. at 8 North Main St. in Concord (in the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers office). The meeting is, naturally, open to the public. For more information visit righttoknownh.wordpress.com.
EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS
Requesting a public record can be extremely easy or very complicated, depending on what you’re requesting. Requests for property tax records or the minutes of the latest city council meeting are, technically, public records requests and can be completed immediately. Other requests, like public employee salary information, are more complex and often take time for agencies and offices to compile. In Portsmouth, the city’s legal department processed 46 such requests in 2014, according to deputy city attorney Suzanne Woodland. How do you do it? Follow these steps:
Decide what you want. Make your request as specific as possible and decide in which format you want the records (electronic, paper copies, or simply accessing them).
Identify who has the records (the specific office, department, or agency that keeps them), get the contact information for the record holder, and, if necessary, obtain and fill out a record request form.
If there is no form, make your request in writing. (Sample letters can be found at rcfp.org/foia.) Describe the records clearly and identify what you’re looking for. If you want copies, ask for an estimate of costs and adjust your request based on the cost estimates. Agencies often charge per page for copies of docum