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Monday, March 11, 2013

Area towns provide pay figures, not other details

NASHUA – If you want to know how much an employee in your town was paid, go right ahead and ask. The state’s Right-to-Know law clearly states this information is public.

But if you want to know where that same employee lives, don’t expect an answer. ...

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NASHUA – If you want to know how much an employee in your town was paid, go right ahead and ask. The state’s Right-to-Know law clearly states this information is public.

But if you want to know where that same employee lives, don’t expect an answer.

The state’s Right-To-Know law makes clear the amount of money paid to state and municipal employees is public information.
The Telegraph has regularly requested this information from Nashua officials in years past, and occasionally from other towns or school districts.

But while municipalities may be familiar with requests for salary information, a series of Right-to-Know requests from The Telegraph last year show that other employee information – from official ID numbers to their home addresses – can be challenging, despite allowances under state law.

While Nashua has provided employee address information in the past, in 2012, city officials did not provide access to those records. In surrounding towns, the reaction to a request for employee addresses ranged from outrage to offish.

In preparation for Sunshine Week, Telegraph reporters sent requests to all of the towns in its coverage area in July and August for various employee information, including names, home addresses, department, job title, date hired, hours worked per week, annual salary as of Jan. 1, 2011, and Jan. 1, 2012, and earned overtime in 2011.

How towns responded varied as much as the rate of pay for their employees, but there were some trends.

The biggest obstacle The Telegraph faced was the refusal from most town and school district administrators to share employee addresses. The Telegraph did not request the home addresses of local police officers.

Of the 12 Right-to-Know requests filed, only the town of Litchfield provided employee addresses. In an Aug. 7, 2012, email to The Telegraph, town administrator Jason Hoch explained why he complied with the newspaper’s request for town employee addresses.

“I cannot generate a report of addresses for public disclosure that does not require significant redaction of a variety of personal information. I’ve noted the sample report you provided from Nashua did not include any address data,” Hoch wrote. “However, I’ve made the inference that there is potentially a public interest in knowing the town of residence of public employees, and I manually added the town of residence to the listing of full time and regular part-time employees.”

While most towns provided much of the information requested without incident, there were a few town employees who voiced concern over The Telegraph’s request.

In Hollis, town administrator Troy Brown was particularly concerned with the request for employee addresses.

“I take offense to your letter in regards to information requested for residency,” he responded in an August 2012 email. “It appears that the Nashua Telegraph is concerned about the personal safety of police officers who have weapons, bullet proof vests and extensive combat training, but could care less about the other municipal employees and their family members.”

Brown suggested that releasing town employee’s addresses could harm their safety at work and at home.

“Why would the Nashua Telegraph want to provide sick, mentally and psychotic individuals with a road map to my family home, but protect the identity of a police officers’ home?” Brown questioned in the email. “Sounds like a great discrimination case to me.”

About one week after the request was made, the town provided The Telegraph with most of the information the newspaper requested, but not all.

“Employee ID numbers, middle initials, and home addresses were intentionally omitted to protect our employee’s privacy,” the town wrote in its response. “Please be advised that some of this information was created specifically for The Telegraph, however the town will not exercise its rights to charge a fee in accordance with RSA 91:A.”

Like Brown, Finlay Rothhaus, vice chairman of the Merrimack Town Council, took issue with the request for employees’ addresses. In an email to The Telegraph, he asked where Managing Editor Jonathan Van Fleet and then-Metro Editor Mike Brindley lived, insisting their addresses is public information. He was informed of their addresses.

Like most towns, Merrimack wouldn’t provide specific employee addresses. Town manager Eileen Cabanel did provide the number of employees in their corresponding categories who lived within town borders in 2010 and 2011. For 2011, of the 213 regular full-time and part-time employees, 102 lived in Merrimack. Eleven of the 14 call fire employees resided in town. For part-time and seasonal employees, 53 of 83 lived in Merrimack. All of the town’s 35 election workers resided in Merrimack, as required by law.

Hudson town administrator Steve Malizia sent a letter and email to The Telegraph on July 20, 2012, explaining the town’s refusal to provide employee addresses.

“The home address of Town employees is not subject to disclosure under RSA Chapter 91-A, as this information is exempt from release ... as the disclosure would be an invasion of privacy,” he wrote.

Malizia referred to the court case of Union Leader Corp. v. NH Retirement System from November 2011. This case involved the denial of the issuance of the top 500 state retirees’ pensions and benefits from a 2009 Right-to-Know request. State courts eventually ruled the pension information was public and compelled its release.

The state’s Right-to-Know law allows agencies five business days to either approve or deny a request in writing and with explanation. The responding agency can issue a statement of the time needed to prepare and/or deny a request.

The town of Hudson, Hudson School District, town of Merrimack, Merrimack School District and town of Litchfield all responded to the requests in a timely manner.

Amherst town officials took the longest to respond to The Telegraph’s Right-to-Know request. And though they voiced little concern over the request, they, too, did not provide employee addresses.

The Telegraph sent the town a request Aug. 9, and a few days later received a response from town administrator Jim O’Mara, saying that while the town was in the process of gathering the data requested, the Town Hall was understaffed due to it being “peak vacation season.”

A few months later, in November, The Telegraph followed up with the town after failing to receive a further response. It was not until January 2013 that the newspaper received the data it requested.

“We hope that you can understand that this delay was not an intentional withholding of information,” wrote town administrative assistant Torrey Demanche in an email. “In the past few months, the town hired a new finance director and an administrative assistant who were successful in extracting and verifying the data provided.”

The Litchfield School District took the second longest to deliver the requested information to The Telegraph. The school district didn’t include employee addresses.

A formal request was sent to new Superintendent Brian Cochrane on Aug. 2, 2012. He forwarded the email to district human resources director Deb Mahoney the same day.

“As I mentioned on the phone, this is a very busy time and vacations will make it even tougher to process, but we will get it done as soon as we can,” Cochrane wrote in an email to The Telegraph.

After two months without a response from Mahoney, The Telegraph sent a follow-up email asking about the information requested on Oct. 10, 2012. The human resources director responded a week later on Oct. 17, 2012, saying the information would be available by Oct. 24. On Oct. 26, another email from Mahoney to The Telegraph said the information would be delayed until Nov. 2.

“I apologize for the delay in completing this request. I worked with our software vendor for assistance with your request, and this was what we were able to pull together,” Mahoney wrote in an email.

Like most other towns, Brookline town officials also declined to provide employee addresses and employee ID numbers, saying that the addresses violated employee privacy and that the town’s ID numbers were the employee’s Social Security numbers, and protected under the state’s Right-To-Know law.

Mont Vernon town officials had no complaint or questions about The Telegraph’s request, sending employee databases and pay information to the newspaper less than a week after they were requested.

However, like the other towns, they failed to provide employee addresses. They did, however, provide employee ID numbers, which some towns did not.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (Telegraph_DC). Erin Place can be reached at 594-6589 or eplace@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Place on Twitter (@Telegraph_ ErinP).