City seeking right to hold shut sessions

NASHUA – After breaking the law by meeting in secret session to talk about the proposed teachers contract last year, city officials are now trying to change the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau asked members of the city’s legislative delegation to sponsor a bill that would make it legal for the city’s legislative body – the Board of Aldermen – to meet in a closed session with an employer board to discuss strategies concerning collective bargaining.

Nashua is unlike other New Hampshire cities and towns in that an employer board exists between a union of city workers and the mayor and aldermen.

Examples of city employer boards are the school board, fire and police commissions and library trustees.

When the school board, aldermen and mayor powwowed last spring on the eve of a threatened teachers’ strike, the meeting should have been open to the public, a Hillsborough County Superior Court judge ruled in May.

Judge William J. Groff agreed with arguments brought by The Telegraph that the city and school department violated the state Right-to-Know Law by closing the meeting to the public.

“In essence, this was a meeting seeking to obtain the clandestine commitment of the BOA to a particular level of funding under the anticipated contract. Such a commitment under the Right-to-Know Law must be done in the ‘light of day’ in the public forum,” Groff wrote in his ruling.

That closed-door meeting led to a proposed contract settlement that averted a threatened strike. The teachers union, school board and aldermen later approved the agreement.

Groff ordered the boards of aldermen and education to prepare detailed minutes of the March 30 meeting and to make the minutes available to the public. Groff also awarded The Telegraph “reasonable attorney’s fees” spent in arguing its case.

“The court finds that by meeting with the BOE in this non-public session, the BOA has violated the express provisions and requirements” of the Right-To-Know Law, Groff said in his ruling. “The court also finds that this action by The Telegraph was necessary in order to make the information communicated at that meeting available to the public and to ensure that such proceedings are open to the public in the future.”

At the time of the March meeting, Lozeau said she thought the session was illegal but necessary to avert a strike.

The city argued that the closed session was a non-meeting, for which a notice didn’t have to be posted, and minutes didn’t have to be kept.

Groff added in his ruling that no matter how well intended the city might have been the Right-to-Know Law “cannot be ignored.”

However, the Right-to-Know Law can be changed.

The legislation that Lozeau initiated would require the negotiating session to be a closed session of a meeting, requiring a notice and minutes.

“I wanted this to be very narrow in scope,” Lozeau said. “I don’t want us to be in a circumstance where we’re violating even the spirit of the Right-to-Know Law.”

House Bill 379 is being sponsored by Nashua state Reps. David Cote and Pamela Price and state Sen. Bette Lasky. The bill was assigned to the House judiciary committee.

The delegation was approached by Lozeau, who asked for sponsors, Lasky said.
“Nobody wants to circumvent the Right-to-Know Law,” Lasky said.

The purpose of the legislation would be to allow the employer board, mayor and aldermen to discuss strategies and “ballpark” salary figures when two sides in a contract negotiation are far apart, Lozeau said.

“I don’t think this is always necessary,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t expect a closed strategy session to be held for every negotiation.