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Monday, March 12, 2012

Bills before Legislature would strengthen state’s Right-to-Know Law

Several bills before the state Legislature would significantly strengthen New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know Law if they become law.

The group of bills address the existing law in a number of areas, including how violators are handled, and what records, groups and meetings are subject to the law.

One bill, which has already been panned by a House committee, would have made the biggest change to the law by opening up the personnel files of public employees.

Even though that bill was rejected before it got to the House floor, several others are still alive and have been endorsed by the House Judiciary Committee, including HB 1535 and HB 1223.

HB 1223 aims to clarify the penalty for violating the Right-to-Know Law and would impose a fine on individual violators and give judges the leeway to order public employees or elected officials to undergo training.

Under the bill, judges would be required to fine a public official or employee $250-$2,000 if a member of that body violates the law “in bad faith.” That person would then be required to reimburse the public entity its legal fees, according to the bill.

Judges could also require individuals of public groups to attend training at their own expense, according to the bill.

Previously, public agencies that violated the law were subject to injunctive relief through the courts and attorney fees.

Walter Robinson, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and member of the New First Amendment Center, said the law would make New Hampshire one of the few states in the region with fines for public officials who violate the law.

“That would be a really good law because it creates an incentive for public officials to stop the deliberate delays and obfuscation, which are too common,” he said. “Anything that brings a stick to the table is a good thing.”

Connecticut, generally regarded as the most open of the New England states, also includes fines, as well as making public agencies pay attorney fees if they violate the law.

“How a judge would determine what constituted bad faith is a separate issue, and it might be difficult,” Robinson said.

The bill was passed by the House Judiciary Committee.

HB 1535 would expand the statute by making arrest records subject to the Right-to-Know Law and establish basic information to be included in the reports. The current law doesn’t expressly include arrest records and access to them varies by department, according to the bill.

The bill would require not only that the records be accessible but they include, at minimum, the identities of the person arrested and the arresting officers, a description of the circumstances around the arrest, the alleged crime, whether the arrest was made on a warrant, the agencies involved in the investigation and the length of the investigation, according to the bill.

The House Judiciary Committee also approved HB 1535, recommending that the House pass it.

One bill the Judiciary Committee didn’t like was HB 1506, which was sponsored by Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield.

The bill would have removed the personnel records of public employees from the exemptions under the Right-to-Know Law. Other exemptions include medical, military and welfare records, among others.

The Judiciary Committee deemed the bill inexpedient to legislate

Other bills that would expand the reach of the state Right-to-Know Laws include:

HB 1308 – Would add quasi-governmental bodies to the definition of public bodies under the law.

SB 393 – Would include “open source blogging” among committee and subcommittee members as a public meeting.

SB 214 – Would make the Right-to-Know Law applicable to public libraries.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com.

Also follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).