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October 19. 2014 7:32PM

Government thinks it's your right not to know


 

Don't look now, but the people we choose to represent us are spending way too much time trying to keep us in the dark.

All kinds of reasons are given for why we can’t know the truth. I am immediately put in mind of Jack Nicholson’s movie line, “You can’t handle the truth!’’ And I am sure there are some public officials who actually think that.

But the reasons are usually much more mundane. The governing class, be it in elective or appointive office, and the related bureaucracies have for too long assumed the reflexive position of finding ways to say no to public information requests rather than starting out from the default position that information should be public.

The officials must hate the preamble to that pesky little Right to Know law: Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society.

In Manchester last week, a reporter learned that a middle school principal had been placed on leave. Why? The school district wouldn’t say. The school board wouldn’t say. Mayor Ted Gatsas wouldn’t say. The Union Leader did find out, and said so.

I get it that personnel files need some protection. But when the personnel involved are hired on the public’s dime to do the public’s business, then the public has a right to know when those personnel are not doing their jobs. The reason why it is essential to have “openness in the conduct of public business’’ is so that the public can judge whether and how well or poorly the public’s representatives are doing their jobs in dealing with the hired help.

In Litchfield a few weeks ago, the school board went behind closed doors and decided not to renew the school superintendent’s contract. The board chairman said he couldn’t say why. Personnel matter, you see.

It then came out that the chairman had sent an email to the superintendent about the number of work hours the chairman’s wife was being offered by the school district. The chairman said one had nothing to do with the other. But he then resigned and the board reversed itself and gave the superintendent a new contract. So I guess it was a “personnel matter’’ after all.

This secrecy certainly isn’t confined to New Hampshire. When we asked federal officials for the names of illegal immigrants who had been arrested in a sweep for criminal activitiy, we were refused because it would be an invasion of the illegals’ rights to “privacy.’’

The Union Leader had to go to federal court, twice, before some judges agreed that this was absurd and ordered the names released.

Sadly, some people in government think the public is either stupid or apathetic or both. If the public lets them get away with withholding public information, then perhaps the government is right.

Write to Joe McQuaid at Publisher@unionleader.com or on Twitter @deucecrew.


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