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Nashua;75.0;http://forecast.weather.gov/images/wtf/small/nskc.png;2014-09-03 00:35:00
Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fighting for your right to know

Telegraph Editorial

If you have been blazing through the state’s toll booths without paying, don’t worry. Nobody will find out how much you owe the state in unpaid fees.

Or if you’ve been parking downtown illegally and racked up a pile of unpaid parking tickets, fret not. The city of Nashua will keep it confidential. ...

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If you have been blazing through the state’s toll booths without paying, don’t worry. Nobody will find out how much you owe the state in unpaid fees.

Or if you’ve been parking downtown illegally and racked up a pile of unpaid parking tickets, fret not. The city of Nashua will keep it confidential.

Even though thousands of people owe the state and city money, that information may never come to light.

Despite open government laws in New Hampshire, namely the state’s Right to Know Law, some records remain secret thanks to the Driver Privacy Act.

Typically, the identities of those who owe a municipality money is public information. Just last month, U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., took heat for her unpaid property taxes. The fact that she owed nearly $11,000 in late property taxes on two homes was known because of the state’s open government laws.

But if she racked up any amount of debt while driving her car, the state and city of Nashua contend that information isn’t public because of a federal law passed in 1994 protecting the disclosure of driver information that was being used by abortion rights advocates to track down abortion providers and patients.

But the issue isn’t universal. Some municipalities, such as Portsmouth, release the names of those who owe unpaid parking fees.

One city’s public information is another city’s secret because of the way officials interpret the state’s Right to Know Law.

As part of Sunshine Week, The Telegraph sought records of toll booth scofflaws and records of people who owe the city money for unpaid parking tickets. In both cases, the newspaper was rebuffed by officials who cited the Driver Privacy Act as a shield from disclosing the records.

Despite certain denials, The Telegraph was able to obtain thousands of records of other relevant data that helps examine government effectiveness. Some of the records the newspaper obtained and analyzed include:

n A list of teacher absences for the Nashua School District.

n Text messages and other forms of electronic communication sent by the mayor and members of the Board of Aldermen.

n A calendar of Mayor Donnalee Lozeau’s appointments with city officials and others in the mayor’s office.

n Salary information, including severance payouts, for town and city employees.

These records help the public determine if municipal policies are serving taxpayers well and whether government officials are being transparent.

In New Hampshire, open government is assured in state law. That’s one reason why The Telegraph observes Sunshine Week with a weeklong series of stories that examines government records and the public’s ability to access them.

The Telegraph is the only newspaper in the state that observes this week with seven days of stories and related content focused on openness in government.

The reason? Because the records we seek are not the property of government officials. They are your records, and access to them provides insight into the action of your town and city officials and how they fulfill the duty they have been given.

We take this week very seriously, and we hope you do, too.