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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Not all willing to let sunshine in

Telegraph Editorial

Each year, Sunshine Week reveals a wealth of information about the activity of municipal officials and how government chooses to spend your tax money.

Last week, readers learned how overtime payments boost public employees' pensions; how officials in Nashua use city-issued credit cards; and what retired state judges and Nashua Department of Public Works employees are paid through their pensions.

Sunshine Week, and the requests for public information that come along with it, also reveals the willingness of your government officials to operate openly and in accordance with the state's Right-to-Know Law.

For example, a commitment to reveal public police data in Nashua led to the creation of a new interactive crime map, which can be found at www.nashuatelegraph.com/crime.

And then there are the towns of Hudson and Merrimack, which didn't squabble when asked to release minutes of their nonpublic sessions. State law allows boards to meet in secret for limited reasons, and once the reason for the secret session no longer applies, those minutes should be opened.

The Telegraph asked three area towns to open those minutes and reveal what was discussed without the public present.

We commend Merrimack and Hudson for their decision to open their once-nonpublic sessions. With equal vigor, we condemn Hollis officials for their bogus excuse that they do not have the time to abide by the spirit of the law.

The Hollis Board of Selectmen met in nonpublic session 41 times in 2011. Many of those meetings were for collective bargaining, which is a permitted reason to close the doors to the public, but once those contracts are settled, the public has a right to review those minutes.

Not in Hollis.

"The right to know law does not entitle you to access to minutes that have been sealed and, moreover, does not require the Town to conduct lengthy and time consuming research into our records at your request," Town Administrator Troy Brown wrote to the newspaper.

"The Town is not obliged by the right to know law to conduct research, retrospectively, to justify, because of your request, the propriety (or lack thereof) of the board's decision to seal the particular minutes and decline to honor your request."

Not only does this attitude poke a stick in the public's eye, it also runs counter to the attorney general's 2009 memorandum on the Right-to-Know Law, which states, "Sealed minutes must be unsealed and made public as soon as the circumstances justifying sealing no longer apply."

Another Telegraph story examined proposed changes to the law at the State-house.

Those bills include HB 1223, which aims to stiffen penalties for Right-to-Know Law violators and require clueless public officials to undergo training at their own expense.

This is a change we applaud and think the public should, too.

With such legislation on the public's side, Right-to-Know Law miscreants like the officials in Hollis will be held more accountable for their actions.