NASHUA — After a local resident filed dozens of Right-to-Know requests that led to an investigation of the city’s assessing division, a proposal has been made to amend the state’s Right-to-Know law to require citizens to pay for some inquiries.
Rep. Jan Schmidt, D-Nashua has written House Bill 2218, which would allow public bodies and municipalities to charge personnel costs for the retrieval of records if the requests by the same individual required staff to spend more than five hours in a month gathering documents.
The nonprofit citizen coalition Right To Know NH is vehemently against the bill.
On Saturday, Schmidt met with Right To Know NH to discuss her recommended changes to the law. The bill is expected to be introduced in the new year.
“We are totally opposed to it,” David Saad, president of RTKNH, said on Wednesday. “Part of our mission is to have more open and transparent government. What we have been fighting for since 2013 is to make minor changes to the law so that everyone has a right to inspect records at no cost.
“Once you create a financial barrier to an individual to view public records and charge them in any way to view those records, you are creating a financial barrier which is going to be used maliciously by some public officials to thwart the public’s right to know,” said Saad.
Schmidt did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment on the bill.
Laurie Ortolano of Nashua said she filed about 100 Right-to-Know requests to the city’s assessing department, which has been highly criticized in the past year and is currently under investigation by the Nashua Police Department. The Board of Land and Tax Appeals has also inquired about alleged deficiencies within the office. Several improvements have been made in recent months to address some of the concerns.
“When we are faced with these Right-to-Know requests, it takes time from not only assessors because they are looking at the data and helping us to pull the data, but also from the administrative staff,” Kim Kleiner, director of administrative services, recently told the aldermanic Budget Review Committee. “ … We spend approximately two to four hours a week in legal (department) going over, last count I saw, was 12 pages of Right-to-Know requests.”
She said one of the requests resulted in more than 500 documents, as well as overtime for staff members trying to fulfill the inquiries.
Mayor Jim Donchess agreed, saying recently that it is not cost productive for the city’s residents to pull the assessors away from their vital, daily duties in order to work on document requests.
“We have had hundreds of Right-to-Know requests, which are taking up a lot of time and have been for the last year by the assessing department, by the legal department, by Ms. Kleiner,” said Donchess.
Kleiner said her administrative manager is spending about half of her working hours each week addressing Right-to-Know requests. She explained that it can take four hours to redact 100 documents associated with a single request.
The bill proposed by Schmidt essentially allows the city to “take information and bury it deeply if you have people who can’t afford it,” Ortolano said on Wednesday.
If the bill passes, Ortolano said, residents might not be able to uncover deficiencies or mismanagement in government since it would be a costly endeavor, which would ultimately prevent positive changes or improvements from being made that could benefit the general public or taxpayer.
Ortolano said she spent about $1,000 obtaining copies of property cards last year, which are now available for free on the city’s website. Instead of blaming a resident who is requesting information, Ortolano said the city should be addressing its manpower shortage in the assessing division; this month, the mayor proposed a new chief assessor position.
According to Schmidt’s bill, if the production of records for one person making a Right-to-Know request exceeds five hours in a month, the agency receiving the request shall require the requester to pay the personnel costs required during the month to complete the search and copying tasks.
“The personnel costs shall not exceed the actual salary and benefit costs for the personnel time required to perform the search and copying tasks. The requester shall pay the fee before the records are disclosed, and the public body may require payment in advance of the search,” states the bill.