Another View -- David Saad: Protecting your 'right-to-know' without going to courtBy DAVID SAAD
November 05. 2017 11:39PM
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 state law sets a high bar for the recovery of attorney fees and other costs.
Last year in House Bill 178, the Legislature 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 that is specified in RSA 91-A. The commission anticipates it is likely this alternative process would result in savings to citizens, public bodies and agencies, and the court system.
Along with the ombudsman, a Citizens’ Right-to- Know Appeals Commission would 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.
The commission, under the leadership of its chairman, Sen. Bob Giuda, met its objective and came up with several recommendations that should be taken up by the Legislature and implemented. Sen. Giuda pledged to file a bill later this month in the Senate to implement the ombudsman and Citizens’ Right-to- Know Appeals Commission. You can read the commission’s full report at RighttoKnowNH.org.
Please contact your legislators and ask them to support the commission’s findings and make the process of resolving right-to-know grievances easier for all citizens.
David Saad is president of Right To Know New Hampshire.