November 23, 2006

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Concord Publisher's Note: Help patch the leaky boat
By†Dan Szczesny

Happy Thanksgiving!

While youíre busy preparing for the holidays, the business of government goes on. And one piece of business being debated in the State House right now is an update to the stateís Right-to-Know law.

What is the Right-to-Know law? Itís a set of statutes that spells out the publicís access to the business of publicly elected bodies, such as city councils or boards of selectmen.

Itís an important group of laws. Why?

Often, due to the society we live in, we assume that public officials are inherently accountable to voters. Sure, we can throw the bums out. But what about what they do while theyíre holding office? Thereís nothing anywhere in the U.S. Constitution that guarantees you or me access to the discussions, debates and decisions of public boards.

Minutes? Donít we have the right to see them? Donít boards have to keep them? On this, the U.S. Constitution says nothing; neither does our stateís Constitution.

Thatís where the Right-to-Know law comes in, in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Because of the need to spell out clearly the obligation of public officials to disclose information, each state has a set of laws. Theyíre often called ďSunshineĒ laws, and some are better than others.

In New Hampshire, our set resembles a leaky boat thatís constantly in need of bailing out. There are legitimate exceptions, but public officials seemingly always find loopholes and ways to circumvent it. Also, no specific penalties are attached to violations.

Iím sure public officials donít take the oath of office intending to violate the public trust by conducting business in secret. But once elected, itís sorely tempting to do business behind closed doors, because itís just so much easier and faster.

A great example of how public officials try to get around the law was in Nashua some years back. As I recall, former Mayor Donald Davidson needed to discuss something with the board of aldermen, but didnít want the public to know. To beat the Right-to-Know law, he met with aldermen in small groups, so a quorum wasnít ever present.

The Telegraph of Nashua called him on it, and a judge ruled against Davidson. But the judge wouldnít have had anything to rule on if we didnít have a Right-to-Know law.

Now, in the 21st century, we need to update the law to include e-mail and instant messages and voicemail. What constitutes a public record?

We urge the legislators working on this update to remember that the Right-to-Know law is intended to protect the public. Itís not an impediment to good government; rather, itís a way to ensure that public access to the activities of elected officials remains as broad as possible.

Itís a set of laws that, if anything, should be strengthened, not weakened.