By Bob Charest
Why You Should Care NH
With all the chatter the past month about fake news and how it is going to destroy modern democracy, I thought I’d present some “real” news in this column, something you can actually take to the bank, so to speak. In the spirit of the season, here’s my gift to you, my readers: some websites I’ve found helpful over the years that might prove beneficial to you. After all, if all these government entities and commercial enterprises are going to keep tabs on us, why shouldn’t we find a way to let it be of assistance to us?
For years and years, my job was to put together gift guide after gift guide at this time of year, and while I don’t exactly miss that, I do want to continue the spirit of giving. (And to all those news media types who are preparing their holiday stories, I promise that if in any way, shape or form you use the phrase “can’t dampen the spirits” as in rain or whatever else dampens spirits, I will personally come and rip your heart out.) So, Merry Christmas!
My first gift is the gift of knowledge. If you do not have a library card at a New Hampshire library, my first bit of advice is to go and get one. Free books! Need I say more? Yes, I do … You can take that library card number and use it to access the thousands of books available for free through the online system, nh.lib.overdrive.com, which lends ebooks in a couple of different formats (Kindle included) and audiobooks. (I had to have my town librarian authorize me to access the site, so check with your town library first before you go online.)
The loans are for seven or 14 days, and you are limited as to the number of items you can have out on loan at any one time. I have used the system for years, and by telling you about it, I have now increased my chances of being assigned to a wait list for any of the more popular books, but this is the season of giving (which I will deeply regret the first time I can’t get a book I want). I think this is one of the most impressive free services ever offered.
Several other websites offer free books, including amazon.com when it’s running a promotion; and Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org), which has 53,000 books on its site, many of which are classics that have gone out of copyright protection. But the OverDrive system supported by local libraries is my favorite.
My second gift is the Secretary of State’s website, more specifically the Bureau of Vital Statistics, you can reach by clicking here. If you need a certified copy of a birth, death, marriage, divorce or civil union certificate, this is the place to go. You may also get these copies at your city or town clerk’s office. There is a charge, $15 for the first certificate (considered a “search” fee, due whether or not the record is found) and $10 for each additional form.
The reason I mention this is because recently I experienced some confusion over who can receive these certificates. Contrary to what some people believe, you can’t go to the Secretary of State or town clerk and ask for someone else’s death, marriage or birth certificate. The way the law is set up, you must have a “direct and tangible” interest in obtaining the record.
Whether that means it is for some government purpose, say you are the executor of the person’s estate, or you need it for some other official purpose, you must fill out an application that requires the reason for your request and your relationship to the person whose record you want. You must also include a copy of a valid ID. Vital records in New Hampshire are considered private, not public information, and access is restricted.
(Birth records older than 100 years and death, marriage, and divorce records older than 50 years are considered public. If you are researching your genealogy, contact the research center at 71 S. Fruit St., Concord.)
Interestingly, there is a loophole in this process. RSA 5-C:9 includes this section: Properly qualified members of the press, radio, television, and other news media shall be considered to have a direct and tangible interest in vital statistic records when the information requested by such media sources is of a public nature.
My third gift is a combination of websites, a couple from the state and a couple offered by commercial groups.
The One Stop system operated by the N.H. Department of Environmental Services (DES) is a good place to find information on environmental permits, in your neighborhood and out. Have a look here. You have to play with the forms a bit. If someone applies for any number of permits handed out by DES, it will often be listed on this database. I say “often” because the list is not all-inclusive, but it has answered a question or two for me in the time I have been using it. It is especially useful if you want information on property near a lake.
The Shoreland Protection Division appears relatively current on permits for work being done near the waterfront. Find out here what your neighbor is building, how big it will be, and how they plan to protect the waterbody. Also on the One Stop site, which is billed by the state as a user-friendly, online, searchable database comprised of environmental information and data compiled by DES programs, I’ve been able to get information on diesel spills, tank inspection failures at my local gas station, and reports on drilled wells and septic systems. Like I said, you have to play with this a bit to make it useful to you.
Briefly, another website that I have found useful is the Department of Revenue Administration’s list of property tax rates by town. It is accessed at revenue.nh.gov/mun-prop/municipal/property-tax-records.htm. It goes back several years and is useful in seeing the breakdown by school, town and county portions, and to a lesser extent how you compare to other towns. I say “lesser” because you have to do some math using equalized rates to get an idea of just how atrocious your town’s tax rates are.
In the same vein, want to know if someone has paid his or her taxes? NHtaxkiosk.com lets you do this for the several New Hampshire communities that they report on. In some towns, you can even pay your property taxes online, for a fee.
And while we’re on real estate matters, the go-to site in my house is neren.com, the official website of the Multiple Listing Service which many of you know about, but I mention it here for the one or two who don’t. Find houses for sale, condos, land, and mobile homes, grouped in several ways that you decide: newest listings, cheapest, most expensive, etc. You can also see if a house is active and under contract. The service is very good at including many interior and exterior shots of most listings.
I would also like to tell you about a special website called InDepthNH.org, and the very special person who runs it. (And she didn’t tell me to write this!) I have known Nancy West for 30 years. When my desk was near hers in the Union Leader newsroom, I would hear her on the phone trying to tear something out of some politician’s or some government official’s grasp. And when I say she was fearless, I would sit there in awe some days. She is a person who has a strong adherence to the truth. It is like a religion to her. She can’t stand being lied to. If a psychoanalyst got her on the couch, he or she would have what I affectionately call a “treasure trove.” I do not profess to know what makes her tick.
But I can tell you this: In the nearly two years of discussions (and there have been many) I have had with Nancy both pre-launch and after the Sept. 1, 2015, start of InDepthNH.org, it is absolutely unbelievable the stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make such a website happen. The politics are enough to make the best of us go off with our tails tucked firmly between our legs. The times she has been told she can’t have something and she gets it anyway are truly impressive – and splendid, because she is working without pay to cover stories that are fast going away. These are stories that matter to the public. I hope someday she writes a book because in her first 15 months, she has experienced some of the stuff movies have been made about.
And that in a nutshell is the problem of running such a website. In the course of reporting on the usually unreported happenings, Nancy has to pick and choose wisely. Sometimes the issues and people aren’t well loved. We find ourselves reporting on issues that we personally don’t agree with. Some people might even be considered the outcasts of society. But please remember: A spoon-fed press is in no one’s interest. The next time you read a story in any media, ask yourself where that story came from. Can you trust the source? We are living in the era of fake news, and we must all question what we are being told.
Please show Nancy your support by donating, or by volunteering if that works for you. She is hosting a gathering this Sunday, Dec. 4, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. at the Stone Church in Newmarket. She’d love to see her supporters there. The band Honest Millie is scheduled to play from 4:30 to 6:30, and then there is an open mic from 7 p.m. until midnight. The event is open to the public, and donations for InDepthNH.org will be gladly accepted.
In closing this month’s column during the Christmas season, I want to go way off script and leave you with this, even though it is not my column’s usual subject area:
I did not know Christine Paquette of Barrington. I suspect that if I did, I would have liked her very much. She died Nov. 23, and her obituary appeared in the newspaper this week. It began: “One of the advantages of dying of metastatic breast cancer is that you have time to write your own obituary.”
I have read and edited many obituaries during my time in the newspaper business. I often wondered if the people who wrote many of them had even a clue about the deceased. So many times did I read, in what was probably the last time these people would be mentioned publicly, about inconsequential things such as they enjoyed playing cards, they loved a party, or they took long walks on the beach. I remember one obit in which the family wrote that the man loved his chain saw, and they even named the brand.
But Christine wrote her own farewell, with her death coming three days shy of her 49th birthday. To say that it was heartfelt would be something of an understatement. (You can read it by clicking here. It was poignant, it was revealing, and it touched my heart. Not only did Christine tell us of her great love for her husband Bob, she also mentioned her friends and family members in fond terms, writing that knowing them was the “success story” of her life.
But the part that touched me deepest was how she ended: “I lived my life with very few regrets. I rest in peace. My last words of advice: Be kind to one another. Relationships define the quality of your life and determine your legacy.”
I don’t think I need to add a word to what Christine wrote.
Bob Charest has served as a consultant to InDepthNH.org for the past year, assisting with editing and writing foundation materials. Charest has been in the news business since 1977. He has worked at newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire as a reporter and editor. A graduate of Boston University, he has been involved in volunteer advocacy work that has included speaking up for people living in institutions, group homes and foster care. He also leads a watershed association that monitors water quality at a small New Hampshire lake.
He has been interested in the advances in technology and how they have affected our privacy in America. He will explore issues that involve technology and privacy in this column, which he promises to write once a month.