There was a time when New Hampshire’s government was as open to public scrutiny as most any in the nation. Open government is such an ingrained concept in the Granite State that it’s embedded in the state constitution. In recent years, though, there has been an insidious creep toward secrecy, particularly at the local levels of government. State law calls for public entities to meet and make decisions in public, and offers a few, very specific, exemptions to this rule. But those entrusted with doing the public’s business, for a variety of reasons, seem to be seeking every excuse to broaden those exemptions in order to meet behind closed doors. They call in their lawyers, then cite privilege. They raise the possibility of negotiations being harmed if specifics get out, or note the possibility that a public employee might be discussed negatively, whether anyone’s reputation is at risk or not.
All these circumstances are embedded as exceptions to the Right-to-Know Law, because there are times when it does make sense not to immediately release information to everyone. But too often, officials use them to relieve the pressure of facing their neighbors or critics as they make unpopular decisions. In some cases, they don’t give any real reason, simply noting on their agenda that a closed-door session will be held. And too often, actions taken in these secret meetings remain secret, unrecorded or unrevealed.
At what serves as an entry level to public service, many local public officials have little experience with either the concept or the specifics of the state’s Right to Know Law. We can envision how they might feel doing their jobs would be much easier without having to cater to the public by, say, having to give notice of upcoming meetings, do most business in front of those affected by board decisions and provide an open record of who met, what was said and how members voted.
There are multiple aspects to keeping the public properly informed as to what its public officials and agencies are doing.
One is to make documents detailing the public’s business — they are laid out by state statute — readily available. This means responding promptly to requests for documents, and not imposing obstacles to obtaining them. Granted, it takes time to find and reproduce such records. But a bill before the N.H. Legislature would enact an unreasonable fee on those seeking to obtain public records. HB 1611 would allow municipalities to recoup the cost of filling right-to-know requests. A similar bill rightly died last session, and this one ought to as well. Transparency is a necessary part of governing, and the government ought to bear the cost of it, rather than using that cost as an excuse to deter open-records requests.
Three other bills now before lawmakers deserve approval. House Bills 2580, 2581 and 2582 would, collectively, promote transparency by making clear the intent of state law regarding public meeting minutes. HB 2580 requires a record be kept any time a quorum of a public body meets to discuss negotiations or confer with counsel. HB 2581 requires that when officials vote behind closed doors, a record of how each member voted be kept and made public. HB 2582 requires the content for nonpublic meeting minutes meet the same standard as the minutes for meetings conducted in public.
The cumulative effect of these bills would be to make clear that elected officials must adhere to the law even when the doors are closed.
This is what the constitution demands, with good reason, and it is the standard to which those doing the public’s business ought to be held.