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Critic says city officials shouldn't babysit Right to Know rule

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 11. 2014 9:42PM

MANCHESTER — A provision in a new city policy that governs disclosure of public records may end up costing City Hall money and staff time.

A $58,000-a-year city planner sat next to a Union Leader staffer this week as the reporter looked over a planning board file and used a smart phone to photograph items in the file. The 15 minutes of staff time amounted to about $7 in salary, not counting benefits.

In May, aldermen approved a new Right to Know policy that mandates collection of fees from anyone who requests copies of city documents. It also lays down procedures for making requests of public documents and complying with the requests.

The policy requires a city worker to be present whenever someone inspects documents.

One of the policy’s harshest critics, radio-show host Richard Girard, said it’s ironic that the policy — supposedly written because Right to Know requests were taking so much staff time — requires a city worker to “babysit” anyone who reviews records.

“This policy was never about anything other than assessing fees to deter people from asking for information,” Girard said.

Earlier this week, city planner Jonathan Golden told a reporter he could not email information from a Planning Board file, a practice common before the policy went into effect.

Golden said the cost would be $1 for the first page and 50 cents for subsequent pages. State law and city policy allow government agencies to charge fees to copy a document, but do not permit charges for merely reviewing a file.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said he wasn’t familiar with the provision requiring staff oversight whenever a public record is reviewed.

“I would say that’s a policy of the board (of aldermen). That’s a vote the board took,” he said.

The information photographed Tuesday was included in a file provided to the Manchester Planning Board in advance of its monthly public hearing.

The city posts information provided to most Manchester boards and committees online before a meeting. But workers post only the agendas for the planning and zoning boards. No backup materials — which usually include applications, narratives, maps and letters — are placed online.

Posting to the web involves clicking an option on agenda-management software, said Heather Freeman, an assistant city clerk who handles agendas for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, but not land-use boards.

Gatsas said he doesn’t know why the land-use boards don’t post the information online and referred questions to the city solicitor. A call placed to City Solicitor Tom Clark on Wednesday afternoon was not returned.

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