NH open government shouldn’t be a burden
During a public hearing last week on his budget request for the next two years, Attorney General Michael Delaney mentioned how responding to Right-to-Know requests is putting a strain on his staff and his budget.
In the current two-year budget cycle, he said, his office had spent 3,983 staff hours processing requests for information under the state’s Right-to-Know Law at a cost to taxpayers of more than $360,000.
“I very much appreciate and firmly support the General Court’s policy requiring broad access to governmental records under the Right-to-Know Law,” he said Friday.
“But we need to have a serious discussion about properly addressing the increasing costs associated with that public policy choice.”
Obviously, further restricting access or making it more difficult for the public to acquire documents in a timely fashion isn’t an option. As stated in Article 8 of the state constitution: “Government … should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”
But there are steps state officials can take to lessen the workload. Here are just a couple – one working within the system, the other a bit more ground-shaking.
• Make more public documents available online so residents don’t have to file a Right-to-Know request in the first place.
In fairness, the state has become more proactive in recent years in placing public information online.
Two years ago, for example, the state created TransparentNH (www.nh.gov/transparentnh), a website that provides detailed information on where state government gets its money and where it spends it, including monthly expenditure reports by department.
Still, as Delaney acknowledged last week, if the state made more information available, the public wouldn’t have to ask for it, and staff wouldn’t have to spend as many hours working to provide it.
Perhaps a detailed review of the most common requests could yield some hints on what additional information to put online.
• Consider blowing up the way the state handles Right-to-Know filings entirely, which is essentially to require the media or the public to file suit in state courts – at their own expense – if they feel they have been denied information inappropriately.
In the state of New York, for example, the Committee on Open Government is responsible for overseeing public records and open meeting laws. The committee consists of 11 members – five representing government, six the public – and is empowered to provide advice to agencies, the public and media.
Since its creation in 1974, the committee has issued more than 24,000 written advisory opinions and hundreds of thousands of others by telephone. Staff members also sponsor educational workshops for government agencies, the news media and the public.
Clearly, such a system is superior to anything at work today in New Hampshire – both for state agencies and the public. Even a scaled-down version of this approach would be preferable to a system that ultimately puts the onus on the media or taxpayers to keep government officials in line.
Perhaps one of the state’s newly elected lawmakers would be willing to champion such a cause in the name of transparency and good government. The deadline for House members to file a preliminary bill request is Friday.