The documents that your government creates belong to you. The meetings your government holds? They are yours, too.
That should be all of our mindset when we seek public records, according to Merrimack Attorney Rick Gagliuso, an expert in First Amendment law.
The government belongs to us, he said at an event Thursday celebrating Sunshine Week in Nashua.
“Public records belong to all of us. Keep that in mind when you are making a right-to-know request,” said Gagliuso, who remains passionate about government transparency.
The right-to-know evening at the Hunt Memorial Building was co-sponsored by The Telegraph of Nashua, InDepthNH.org and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Gagliuso started his law career three decades ago representing The Telegraph and he still represents news outlets, including the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism’s InDepthNH.org.
Gagliuso joined David Saad, president of the group Right To Know New Hampshire for a presentation that was free and open to the public.
Saad and members of his group met with people before the formal presentations for one-on-one help filing their individual right-to-know requests.
The grassroots group of open government advocates works with individuals on filing requests. They also monitor and write legislation and host a blog containing the most comprehensive information about the right-to-know law in New Hampshire.
Saad gave a detailed, easy-to-understand presentation on every facet of the right-to-know law. The law, RSA 91a, deals with government records and public meetings, he explained. Saad offered tips at every step on how people can better hold government accountable.
Right To Know New Hampshire is celebrating Sunshine Week with a daily blog written by everyday people about their experiences trying to get documents from the government.
News outlets celebrate Sunshine Week in mid-March as an annual reminder of the importance of open government. Saad and Gagliuso agreed that the law must change in New Hampshire to provide better access to the public.
They both support an interim measure so people wouldn’t have to go to court as their only appeal if their request has been denied. Gagliuso believes a review commission would help, something Saad’s group has also been promoting.
Saad also wrote an impassioned post for Sunshine Week quoting President John F. Kennedy on secrecy: “The very word ‘Secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies; to secret oaths and to secret proceedings.”
Saad added: “Often, secrecy is used to cover up taking short cuts, poor judgement, unethical behavior, or malfeasance on the part of our public officials.”
Citizens must know what their government officials are doing so they can fully participate in their own democracy, he said.
“In New Hampshire, you, the informed and engaged citizen has the sole burden to hold your government accountable when your right to know has been violated,” Saad said.
What happens when a public official or public employee diminishes government transparency by violating the right-to-know law?
“We all lose,” Saad wrote.
Telegraph reporters Dean Shalhoup, Damien Fisher, editor Chris Garofolo, InDepthNH.org’s Nancy West, and Nashua This Morning reporter Bob Duffy shared their challenges and successes using the right to know law to gather news.
“I was happy to see residents come out during Sunshine Week to learn about New Hampshire’s Right to Know law,” Garofolo said. “It’s encouraging to see members of the public eager to learn about this important measure designed to keep our government open and transparent.”
Right To Know New Hampshire meets on the third Saturday of the month at 9 a.m. at the Coalition of NH taxpayers, 8 North Main St., Concord. The next meeting is tomorrow, March 18.