Rep. Smith: Reinstate commission to hear Right-to-Know complaints
By MARK HAYWARD New Hampshire Union Leader
A key lawmaker has said it may be time to reinstate a commission to hear problems and complaints associated with the Right-to-Know Law, the state law that requires public access to most government records and meetings.
State Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said concerns about government transparency have been building since a Right-to-Know commission was eliminated several years ago as part of an effort to improve government efficiency.
An ongoing commission would be a place where citizens could bring their concerns about the law and whether it was being followed properly, she said.
“The Right-to-Know Law is always under attack from one perspective or another,” Smith said. Smith spoke Monday, days after her committee heard details about six bills that seek to tinker with the law.
The six bills would:
• Tighten an exemption for closed-door meetings of a public body. Notices of closed meetings would have to be posted three days in advance and an explanation given for closing the meeting. Minutes of closed meetings would have to be kept and reviewed annually to determine if they could be released. A judge would have to invalidate any actions taken at a meeting where the Right-to-Know Law was not followed.
• Allow public officials to charge a monetary deposit when one makes a request for pubic records to be copied.
• Exempt firearm records, includings licenses, applications and permits, from public disclosure.
• Loosening language regarding a quorum. Members of a public body would not be required to be physically present at a public meeting if they must travel more than 60 miles to the meeting.
• Extending the law to nonprofit organizations, such as a downtown beautification group that operates a business improvement district for a city or town.
• Establishing a Right-to-Know grievance commission. The commission would not include lawmakers, attorneys or people associated with the New Hampshire Municipal Association.
The New Hampshire Municipal Association opposed the law that would tighten the exemption for closed-door meetings. Lobbyist Cordell Johnston said the Right-to-Know Law is not perfect, but working well as written. It has a lot of support in the Legislature, he said.
“Anytime there’s talk in the Legislature about loosening the Right-to-Know Law, it gets shut down pretty quickly,” he said.
Johnston said several of the bills — such as the firearms proposal and the business-improvement district — seem to have a narrow focus.
But state Rep. Peter Sullivan, D-Manchester, said he put in the bill covering the business improvement district because Manchester downtown businesses pay an extra tax and their money goes to a private organization, Intown Manchester, that is not accountable like local government.
“It’s a loophole in the law that has a potential to be abused,” he said.