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Panel seeks 'express lane' for Right-to-Know complaints

By Dave Solomon
State House Bureau

September 07. 2017 11:39PM

CONCORD — A commission created by the state Legislature to strengthen New Hampshire's Right-to-Know law got off to a late start, but its chairman is confident the group will be able to come up with recommendations to create what one member called “an express lane for citizens to get satisfaction.”

The state Legislature recently passed and Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law HB 178, creating a commission to study new ways to resolve Right-to-Know law complaints outside of an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit.

Anyone who now files a request under RSA 91:A, the state’s Right-to-Know law, and is denied has little recourse but to go to the courts. The newly appointed commission hopes to come up with an alternative route.

“Citizens often have to go to exceptional costs and great lengths to get what is actually theirs — information about how government operates,” said state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, who was elected chairman of the commission by the members present for the organizational meeting.

Harriet Cady is a founder of the advocacy group Right to Know New Hampshire, which has a seat on the commission, and is a long-time advocate for the cause.

She agreed to serve as clerk for the 13-member commission composed of elected officials and representatives from various stakeholder groups, including the New Hampshire Press Association, Municipal Association and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is something I have held near and dear to my heart for many years,” Cady said. “It’s too difficult for most citizens to enforce the Right to Know Law. They give up when they reach the point of having to go to court in order to get what they need. We need to do something that makes it easier and cheaper than having to go to Superior Court.”

She suggested something akin to the Board of Tax and Land Appeals, which rules on disputes over property assessments and abatements, even though its decisions are subject to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Cady pointed out that the law creating the commission called for it to begin work in mid-July, although the full slate of members was not appointed until recently. The commission has until Nov. 1 to submit its recommendations to the Legislature.

“I think this is going to come together rather quickly once we get some models in front of us,” said Giuda. “We want to have our work done at least a week before Nov. 1.”

The group quickly developed a consensus that some sort of resolution process outside the courts, at least as a first step, is the direction to take.

“It seems to me from this first meeting that everyone is of a like mind for what we want to do,” said Mark Hounsell, a Carroll County commissioner representing county government on the panel. “I’m encouraged that we’ll be able to come up with something.”

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