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Your Turn, NH: There is another side of the First Amendment: listening

December 09. 2012 6:09PM

Editor's note: Dave Lang, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, was given the Nackey Loeb First Amendment Award last month for his decade-long effort to open the Local Government Center's records to public view and expose how the center had spent money it collected for public-employee health insurance. This column is an edited version of his acceptance speech.

The quest for openness and transparency from the Local Government Center (LGC) that our union began almost 10 years ago has been a consuming endeavor. The First Amendment of our Constitution lays out a sacred foundation for our democracy. It assures every person the right to speak without that freedom being abridged in any way. In the context of our pursuit of information from the LGC, the First Amendment allowed our union to doggedly pursue transparency from a governmental body that we knew to be using public money in a questionable manner.

The LGC provides health benefits to public employees that cost nearly $400 million annually. As public employees, we found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of publicly defending the rising cost of health insurance at the bargaining table and in the media when we knew that the cost did not need to be that high.

Compounding the issue was that cities, towns, taxpayers and the media were calling upon firefighters to work for lower pay and benefits to compensate for the rising costs of health care. This dynamic had the serious potential to reduce the number of firefighters on duty, which leads to increased response times to fires and medical emergencies and ultimately leads to reduced safety in our communities.

All of the stakeholders involved needed to trust the numbers being given while being assured that health care money was not being wasted. This fight has always been fundamentally a fairness issue between employers and employees as well as the right of the public to know how its money was being spent.

In 2003 we used New Hampshire's "right-to-know" law to file a series of requests asking the LGC to share documentation about how taxpayer dollars were spent within the organization. We believed that because the LGC was simply a group of cities and towns that were all subject to the right-to-know law, the LGC must also be governed by it.

The LGC protested, fighting our attempts at openness. After two trips to the state Supreme Court, the court ultimately agreed with our position and the LGC was forced to open its books. Our suspicions were confirmed, and what followed was an exhausting and frustrating multi-year campaign for public recognition of LGC's funding scheme.

All of this information gained from the LGC allowed us to illustrate clearly that it was using health care money for something other than health care. This is a complicated topic; it is hard to know what is what just by reading, which is why documents matter.

The information we had to offer was often not what people wanted to hear, and some had trouble believing it. We spoke with just about every editorial board in this state and pitched countless stories to reporters. At first, no one picked up the stories. Even though we were not getting traction, we kept on pushing to get the facts out. Documents gave the public, the press and lawmakers something they could wrap their arms around.

What became clear to me from this experience is that the First Amendment is crucial to an effective democracy because it allows any person to speak truth to power. You may not like what is being said or who is saying it, but facts are hard to ignore.

It has taken us nearly a decade to get this far, forging ahead, speech protected, permitting us to say what was needed to be said to prove our case under the law. But the law does not require people to listen. Our advocacy was only half of the battle; we were speaking out, but we needed people to listen to what we were saying in order to have something done about it. House Speaker Terie Norelli, Senators Jackie Cilley, Deb Reynolds, Betsi DeVries and now Gov.-elect Hassan not only listened to what we were saying, but they did something about it, passing much-needed regulation and strengthening oversight of public risk pools in 2009 and 2010.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner and the dedicated attorneys of the Bureau of Securities Regulation listened, and they chose to investigate further and ultimately decided to commence administrative hearings. And reporters and editors who ultimately wrote about this issue brought it to light.

What I hope we can all take away from this, beyond the importance of the First Amendment and what it does for those who wish to speak out, is that it is also important to hear what those people are saying, to consider it, and to pass it on to others so that knowledge can be gained and action can be taken.

Dave Lang is president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire.

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