Carving an Exemption Out of a Loophole

Yesterday I could not stay for the whole March 23 Senate hearing on HB 626, the latest attempt to gut the Right to Know Law, RSA 91-A, but I will describe what I saw. As expected I was forced to sit through an excruciating two hours of testimony from public officials of all stripes who were pleading with the Senate Committee for just a little tweak in the bill to make their lives easier.

There I was, nothing to eat since 5 am, no immediate prospects for lunch, low on quarters, and no sickness bag for the speachifying...I was trapped. Then Senator Martel called for a lunch break beginning with a last, parting shot at testimony...mine. Isn't this how it always goes – most committee members are gone and here is your minute and parking ticket.

As with the other hearings, Right to Know Commission members who are dissembling RSA 91-A were given to running out the clock with drivel about how hard they worked. Their rambling testimonials were sprinkled with kudos to their esteemed comrades.

I had a short amount of time so I quickly barked out my testimony about how hard taxpayers and citizens work to get simple documents that are not only public but in many cases specifically required to be public by law. That would be the whole purpose of 91-A and Part I Article 8a of the NH Constitution. Then I took off to do the two talk radio shows scheduled for that day.

Let's face it. The NH Municipal Association and the NH School Board Association, essentially the same organization, are behind gutting 91-A. They picked the attorneys who drafted the mess we call HB626. Here are your tax dollars and public servants at work.

Rep. Thomas was a 626 sponsor as was Rep. Cady who lost all reason in the process. Sen. Jack Barnes was removed from the committee somehow and seems to still be miffed about it but would not take his name off the bill to kill it.

Right to Know Commission member Attorney Peter Smith of Durham has been involved in re-writing 91-A since his Town Council in Durham was caught violating 91-A in 2003 for holding e-mail meetings to hire employees. Nice pick! Smith's highly educated and thoughtful attorney veneer sheds quickly as he tries to explain the intricate differences between draft documents and public documents in the new HB626 bill. Garbage wording is garbage wording. Taking forty minutes attempting to describe what it means simply makes the case.

John Lassey, another attorney, RTKC member, and drafter of sloppy ZBA ordinances in Deering where, unfortunately, he is chairman of the ZBA, has his own 91-A issues. I was attending a ZBA meeting in Deering several years ago when a young, hot shot attorney (in her mind) took issue with points being made by ZBA members during the deliberative portion of the ZBA meeting. She got herself frustrated from not being allowed “object” to a ZBA deliberative discussion in progress. (She seemed to think or dream it was a court case?) After repeatedly being told no public comment was allowed she stomped up to Lassey's desk and slapped a note on it. I waited for the non-public portion of the meeting to end and promptly dropped a RTK request on the ZBA desk for her illegal note. I got a letter a few days later from Lassey saying since he did not read the illegal note it was not public. Interesting concept. No wonder he wound up on the RTK Commission.

Now for what the “I'm special” crowd wanted out of the HB626 hearing.

The gurus of the PUC who attended and were allowed to speak early have just now figured out how the new “improvements” to 91-A would hobble future elite sushi bar meetings where they generate their paper tsunamis. They want a clause to protect their fine work. The PUC gobbled up about a half hour with this nonsense. Sen. Barnes took note that they were a little late getting involved. Bless him.

A woman from Manchester City Hall used her best mouse voice to make her points. When I could hear her she did manage to pique my interest with a comment about the effect of HB626 on future Manchester charter commissions. She claimed the commissions break up into very small, often two person, working groups. Having that small a political subdivision still be considered a “meeting” she said, would hinder that process. Well let's hope so!!

Charter commissions are regularly packed with lawyers and pro-government activists from within the municipality. Just to make sure the desired outcome of the commission's “work” is achieved commissions are broken into small “working groups” so the facilitator can control what is put in the charter. Its called a Delphi technique. Don't fall for it.

On the other hand, The NH Schools Board Assoc. was perfectly happy with the bill. The fact that this re-write was designed to keep taxpayers out of their hair may have something to do with it.

NHMA should be delighted to see HB 626 pass ever since 2003 when the Manchester Firefighters Association sued them for info about how they come up with insurance for that organization. The court declared NHMA a public body subject to 91-A requests. If you knew as much about how NHMA works a we at CNHT do you would have a greater understanding of why this effort to keep the public out of government records and meetings is so important to them.

HB626 is designed entirely around elected and appointed officials idea of what the Right to Know Law should be. That is why it passed overwhelmingly in the House.

My suggestion for a “fix” to 91-A:

Go back to the drawing board and do what the RTKC was supposed to do. Come up with a way to keep private medical records private while letting citizens have access to the public information they may contain.

Then adopt penalties such as removal from office and/or costs paid by violators and let the public clean up the Right to Know Law. That wouldn't take long and it would also be constitutional — which HB626 is not..