OPINION: NH House Should Vote For Right-to-Know Ombudsman Bill

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Screen shot from video

David Saad, founder of RTK NH, is pictured speaking at the Nackey Loeb School of Communications during Sunshine Week.

By David Saad, president RTK NH

The full House will be voting on SB 555 this Thursday (4/26).

SB 555 will establish an Ombudsman to resolve Right to Know grievances and reduce the burden and costs for:

  • Citizens
  • Courts
  • Public agencies & bodies

The 13 member study commission unanimously agreed that Citizens needs an Ombudsman.

The Senate agreed that citizens need an Ombudsman and voted to pass SB 555.
The House Judiciary Committee also agreed that citizens need an Ombudsman.

Since there was a Fiscal Note on the Bill requiring an appropriation of $48,000 for the Ombudsman, the House Finance Committee recently voted the Bill Inexpedient to Legislate.

Here is what the House Finance Committee had to say:

SB 555-FN-A, establishing a citizens’ right-to-know appeals commission and a right-to-know law ombudsman and making an appropriation therefor. INEXPEDIENT TO LEGISLATE.
Rep. William Hatch for Finance. This bill would establish procedures to streamline the resolution of complaints under RSA 91-A by establishing a citizen’s right-to-know appeals commission and an office of the right-to-know ombudsman that would be administratively attached to the department of state. The bill calls for a volunteer 15-person commission with a paid ombudsman. The committee considered infrastructure requirements, the need for the ombudsman position, the cost to operate that office, and what is currently being done to deal with 91-A issues. The total appropriation for this office would be at least $48,000 with savings of less than $10,000. The bill did not include any provisions for reimbursement to volunteers for travel or time spent. Finally, there are currently only 6 to 9 cases per year that raise RSA 91-A issues. For these reasons, the majority recommends ITL. Vote 22-4. 

It appears the Finance Committee did not do much more than read the Fiscal Note.

If they had read the Bill and the Commission’s Report and the written testimony received by the House and Senate Committees, they would have understood why the Commission was not made part of the AG’s office and that the volunteers on the Commission are reimbursed for travel and other expenses. Those decisions were by design and not an oversight as they seem to believe. They would have also realized the significant cost savings which would offset the cost of the Ombudsman.  Only focusing on the few court cases each year is the same as starring at the iceberg and not acknowledging that what lies below the surface of the water is many times larger than what appears above the surface.   There are many citizens harmed each year by Right to Know violations that never see their day in court and never get justice.   And I am sure there are many instances where the Press also would benefit from an Ombudsman who could provide a speedy resolution to requests for records instead of going to court.

Many people put in a lot of thought and effort to craft the Bill the way it is and then the House Finance Committee disregards all that work.

While hiring an ombudsman is an added expense, there will be considerable savings to offset the costs to the taxpayers.  By avoiding litigation, municipalities and state agencies will often be spared significant legal fees.  For example, in the Superior Court case of Porter v. Town of Sandwich, Porter was awarded over $200,000 in attorney fees and the town had to pay their own legal fees too.  Recently, the town of Tuftonboro paid over $20,000 in legal fees and lost their Right-to-Know lawsuit.  Regardless of who wins the lawsuit, there are always significant legal fees which are passed on to the taxpayers.

Either way, taxpayers are going to pay for resolving Right to Know grievances.  $48,000 for an Ombudsman now will yield more than $48,000 in avoided litigation costs later.

In New Hampshire, the deck is stacked against the citizen and the press.  While on paper it appears that the Right to Law provides for open and transparent government.  Enforcement of this law falls squarely on the back of the individual citizen who is engaged, cares, and has the financial and emotional capital to take their government to court to enforce their right to know.  Most citizens simply do not have the time or money to fight for themselves and their fellow citizens.  Public officials know this and use this barrier to their advantage as they violate the rights of all citizens.  For each Right to Know petition filed in court there are many more violations which are not pursued by citizens because they cannot afford to do so.  And when a citizen does go to court, public officials use the deep pockets of taxpayer funding to fight against the very taxpayers who are paying the legal fees.

SB 555 creates a level playing field when an alleged right to know violation has occurred.  With the ombudman, citizen complaints will be resolved out of court by an independent arbiter.  This alternate resolution process will allow for ALL citizens, regardless of their financial means, to enforce their right to know.

For more details on why you should support SB 555 click here.

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