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Address the problem

In a recent Aug. 21, 2019, article in The Telegraph – “Officials say they are overwhelmed by requests” – Mayor James Donchess claimed recent Right-to-Know requests submitted by Laurie Ortolano exhibit an “intention to disable, to retaliate, to punish the city,” and he labeled the city’s need to engage “a $100,000 lawyer to respond to Right to Knows as out of hand.” The City has also recently begun to ostracize Ms. Ortolano by declining her requests for records that are immediately available and directing assessing department staff members not to speak to her.

Unfortunately, Mayor Donchess’ comments and the city’s behavior toward Ms. Ortolano exhibit the typical (and tired) reaction to scrutiny: Attack the messenger, minimize the problem, and hope attention dies down.  

The problem with the city’s assessing department, however, is not going away unless and until the city owns it and recognizes its own deficiencies produced it. We should all be thankful and grateful that Ms. Ortolano’s tireless efforts at forcing transparency from the city have uncovered this problem. Few private citizens have the courage, energy and attention to detail Ms. Ortolano has dedicated to this effort. Everyone in Nashua will ultimately benefit from it. 

Instead of attacking Ms. Ortolano, Mayor Donchess should focus on the facts that have come to light within the last year concerning the city’s assessing department, the assessing department’s and the city’s overall arcane and antiquated systems and document management and retention policies: (1) the Assessing Department failed to update its assessing software for several years; (2) the Department appears to have employed “sales chasing” as a method for assessing not only Ms. Ortolano’s property, but many other properties as well (“sales chasing” is the practice of using the sale of a property to trigger a reappraisal of that property at or near the selling price and was deemed inappropriate by Section 3.16 of the New Hampshire Equalization Manual); (3) the Department’s top commercial assessor, Greg Turgiss, was observed – during the month of April 2019 – taking long breaks in the middle of his work days to park his car off site and nap and/or smoke, despite disclosing to his colleagues that he was leaving the office to perform “field work”; (4) the City promoted Kim Kleiner, the Mayor’s former chief of staff, to oversee the Assessing Department as an “Administrative Services Director” despite have no appropriate assessing credentials or experience (indeed, she looked tired in last week’s photo op); (5) the Assessing Department was using, and continues to use, a “VAX” computer (a discontinued system) from the 1970s to administer abatement applications – the Department directs an employee to input the abatement information into the computer and software; (6) the files for each property (over 29,000 of them) are in paper form and are not accessible electronically; and (7) the City continues to maintain a policy of automatically deleting email after 45 days, a time frame much shorter than many private businesses and that I continue to argue violates its obligations concerning the preservation of administrative correspondence under New Hampshire law.

Ms. Ortolano was able to uncover these facts with a series of simple Right-to-Know requests. A basic tenet of a healthy democracy at every level is open dialogue and transparency. The revelation of the information above has exposed that the assessing department’s problems extend far beyond a lone disproportionate assessment of Ms. Ortolano’s property. The latter was merely a symptom of a much larger quandary. Mayor Donchess and the city should focus on attacking that larger problem and leave Ms. Ortolano in peace.