Today’s Sunday Union Leader features my op-ed about the current landscape of Right-to-Know in the Free State. Improvements are happening, but they are also devising new and sneakier ways to hide from us. Privacy for US, not them!
For people who cannot access behind the paywall:
TRANSPARENCY in government must start at the top. For several years now, Right-to-Know NH (RTKNH), a statewide nonpartisan open government advocacy group, has been requesting the Attorney General’s office update its outdated 138-page Right-to-Know memorandum from 2015.
Over the past 8 years, many positive Right-to-Know developments have taken place. The public deserves to understand how their rights have been expanded.
For example, a Constitutional Amendment was passed in 2018 that states: “[Art.] 2-b. [Right of Privacy.] An individual’s right to live free from governmental intrusion in private or personal information is natural, essential, and inherent.”
Sounds good, right? But Article 2-b was recently cited by Manchester City Solicitor Emily Rice to deny the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, as a matter of law, copies of “daily logs” at a homeless shelter. Rice’s interpretation seems counter to the spirit of openness and good governance, highlighting the need for more clarity from the attorney general.
Several recent state Supreme Court decisions have also strengthened our Right-to-Know.
Thanks to the dedication of the Union Leader and other local papers, the Fenniman decision was rightfully overturned after almost 30 years. This win significantly narrows the application of an exemption to disclosure of governmental records under the law. Instead of a “blanket ban” applying to all government personnel records, now, a balancing act between privacy interests and public’s Right-to-Know must be considered.
Due to the relentless efforts of Laurie Ortolano, former RTKNH president, there is even more good news, not least of which is that she will be honored at the Nackey Loeb First Amendment Awards this Thursday. Tickets are available at loebschool.org.
Ortolano’s transparency battle with the City of Nashua reached historic proportions. Requests for tax assessments and finances were met with denials and court battles. They even arrested her for criminal trespassing at City Hall (later annulled).
But Ortolano didn’t give up. She was finally awarded $63,400 in attorneys’ fees, generally unheard of, for the City of Nashua’s non-compliant behavior, and officials were ordered to undergo remedial RTK training to avoid future violations.
The city appealed to the state Supreme Court and in August Ortolano’s victory was upheld. In their decision, the justices quoted the state’s Right-to-Know law: “The purpose of the Right-to-Know law is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions, and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”
On top of these developments, a new Right-to-Know Ombudsman office (RKO), attached to the Secretary of State, has opened. The intent is to provide the public with a simpler, cheaper, and quicker way to resolve Right-to-Know complaints. Anyone can file a written complaint and pay the $25 filing fee. The ombudsman is tasked with determining if any Right-to-Know violations have occurred, and issues a ruling.
If you don’t like the RKO ruling, you may still appeal to the superior court within 30 days. If the ombudsman’s final ruling is not appealed, it may be registered in Merrimack County Superior Court as an enforceable judgment.
Based on the above, it’s clear the public and municipalities need better guidance on the current landscape of our Right-to-Know laws. The old, outdated memo from almost a decade ago simply isn’t cutting it.
We respectfully request that the attorney general update the Right-to-Know Memo by the end of the year. After all, Granite Staters have the right-to-know what’s up with their Right-to-Know, because without transparency, there is no accountability.
A former Republican candidate for state Senate, Carla Gericke is an outspoken open-government advocate and serves on Right-to-Know NH. She lives in Manchester.