Copied below is my testimony submitted in support of HB481 to establish a RTK Ombudsman.
Dear Committee Members,
Please support HB481 to establish a Right-to-Know Ombudsman.
My name is Carla Gericke, former Republican state Senate candidate in District 20. I live in Manchester, NH, am an attorney, and serve on several nonprofit boards, including Right-to-Know NH (RTKNH), a nonpartisan, statewide citizens’ coalition that works to improve government transparency and accountability.
RTKNH supports this bill and will be submitting testimony in support, so I am testifying in my personal capacity as a citizen.
Sadly, despite strong language in the NH Constitution regarding a citizen’s right-to-know, New Hampshire ranks very poorly for open and transparent government.
In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity found in the category of “Public Access to Information,” New Hampshire earned a grade of F, and ranked 49th out of 50 states. In the category titled “In practice, citizens can resolve appeals to access to information requests within a reasonable time period and cost,” New Hampshire received a score of 0. [Report HERE].
Surely with the NH Constitution stating that the government should “at all times” “be open, accessible, accountable and responsive,” we can do better than zero?
Why is it that Granite Staters do not have access to public information in a reasonable time frame and/or at a reasonable cost?
(1) Because the burden on citizens to resolve Right-to-Know complaints is very high. When state departments, for whatever reason, deny a RTK request, citizens are forced to file a lawsuit in Superior Court. This is intimidating, expensive, and time consuming.
(2) Municipalities seem mis- or ill-informed and/or lack proper training about citizens’ Right-to-Know. They now regularly, as a matter of course, deny requests without any solid legal footing, forcing citizens into the courts. Some departments are even on record as saying filing Right-to-Know requests is regarded as a “hostile act.” This view is unacceptable.
In 2017, a task force was convened to try to rectify New Hampshire’s lack of open government. After months of meetings, stakeholders from different sides unanimously agreed that citizens need an easier, cheaper, faster grievance resolution process which reduces cost for all parties. As a result, establishing an independent Right-to-Know Ombudsman position was recommended. (Final report HERE.)
Initially, I was against this notion, thinking, “Here we go again, instead of fixing a problem, we’ll just end up growing government.” But in the past four years, as I have struggled with my own open record requests, been denied access to police body camera footage (did you know police body cam footage is secret in all but a few situations? Yeah, me either!?!), and watched high profile and expensive cases wend their way through to the NH Supreme Court, I have changed my mind.
We need a Right-to-Know Ombudsman ASAP. Even though there is some expense to hiring this position, which will be borne from the Secretary of State’s office, the savings from expensive lawsuits and attorney’s fees should easily counteract this. Also, sometimes we have to incur an expense to fix a problem, and with the courts overwhelmed, and slow, an Ombudsman seems like a reasonable compromise to increase government transparency, which in turn increases accountability.
Speaking of accountability, this legislative body has now had several years to pass this bill, and transparency is getting worse, not better. Please don’t make it almost thirty years, like with Fenniman, before we start to fix what is clearly a growing problem.
Let’s move in the right direction. Let’s establish a cheap, fast, easy, streamlined, credible, and impartial way for citizens’ to ensure our government is “open, accessible, accountable and responsive” to us.
This bill also includes a sunset clause, so on the off-chance we find the Ombudsman is not serving Granite Staters well, we can change course. Let’s give this a try in the meantime!
I ask that you support HB481. Thank you for your time.