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July 05. 2014 7:47PM

Activist: Your right to know is under fire with more efforts to weaken NH laws

An organizer behind a new right-to-know watchdog group says she expects more attempts to be made during the next legislative session to weaken New Hampshire's laws governing public access to government records - and she will fight those efforts.

"Every year, there are attempts made to make it harder, or too expensive, for residents to see what government is doing," said former state Rep. Harriet Cady, a member of Right to Know New Hampshire, formed in March. "It irritates me beyond belief. It's a fight I'm always ready for."

Cady said RSA 91-A, the state's right-to-know law, is one of the most important laws in the state that "almost no one ever thinks much about."

As its preamble states: "Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people."

In 2014, the Legislature considered several bills to change the law.

"We were able to work to have them effectively killed," said Cady.

. HB 1156, sponsored by state Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Nottingham, would have created an 11-person Right-to-Know Oversight Commission to review changes to the law and make recommendations to the Legislature. It also contained exemptions to the right-to-know law that would allow for meetings in secret to review written advice from a public body's lawyer and all student-related actions. It passed the House, but was deemed "inexpedient to legislate'' in the Senate.

. HB 1379, sponsored by House Deputy Majority Whip Jeff Goley, D-Manchester, would have designated all personal records filed with the state or cities and towns regarding applications for gun permits as confidential. The House Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be killed.

. HB 1470, sponsored by Rep. Peter Sullivan, D-Manchester, would have allowed a governmental body to deliberate by having one or more of its members take part in a meeting electronically if those members had to travel 60 miles or more to attend the session in person. House members killed the bill.

. HB 1153, sponsored by Rep. Daniel McGuire, R-Epsom, called for individuals to pay a deposit before public records are copied for them. House members also killed this bill.

Cady said another issue her group is concerned with is the cost associated with right-to-know requests.

For example, Manchester aldermen in May approved a new right-to-know policy that involves collecting fees from anyone who requests copies of city documents. It also spell out procedures for making requests of public documents and for staff when complying with the requests. The policy says a city worker must be present whenever someone inspects documents.

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

"The cost is enough to scare some people away from making a right-to-know request," said Cady.

Right to Know New Hampshire was founded in March, and the group - with about 10 members - holds monthly meetings in Concord, at the offices of the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers.

"Our mission is to advocate for the Right to Know Law and Article 8 of the state constitution," said Cady.

Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution calls for government to be "open, accessible, accountable and responsive" and protects public access to governmental proceedings and records.

"Most people don't know how strong a person you have to be to hold public officials accountable," said Cady.

"You have to explain yourself, and people want to know why, why would you put yourself through that. Someone needs to."

Right to Know New Hampshire has recommended two bills be written in the Legislature, one to strengthen people's access to government information and another to establish a right-to-know board to hear alleged violations.

"I expect there will be more bills written looking to weaken it," said Cady.

"I'll keep this up until I die, and I hope it goes on after me," Cady said. "I'm not sure the average citizen understands how important the right to know is in their everyday lives." pfeely@unionleader.com


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