It’s up to all of us to fight secrecy
Knowing about our government is crucial to maintaining trust in public institutions
When Dr. Ed Kois left his private practice after 30 years for a position at the Manchester VA Medical Center, he expected most of his new patients’ injuries to have occurred on the battlefield. Instead, he found many of them to have been caused by poor medical care.
Frustrated by the lack of improvements hospital administrators were willing to make, Dr. Kois and several colleagues in 2016 went public. They used whistleblower protections and the power of the free press to tell their story and shine a light on the deplorable conditions at the Manchester hospital. Just hours after The Boston Globe reported a story based on information provided by Dr. Kois, the federal government removed two top officials at the hospital and ordered a full review of the facility.
Dr. Kois died in 2019 and was posthumously honored by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Whether through whistleblowers like Kois or the use of state and federal freedom of information laws, knowing about our government is crucial to maintaining trust in public institutions.
This trust is essential to our democracy and increasingly, given the current coronavirus pandemic, our safety.
When government authorities provide guidance on how to slow the spread of the virus, for example, we need to know the facts and data supporting their remarks.
When difficult decisions are made regarding medical care or the curtailment of civil liberties, we ultimately need to know how these decisions were made and why. Only through this transparency can we understand for ourselves if government is acting in our best interest.
The need for trust in our public institutions is why we have whistleblower protections and the New Hampshire Right to Know Law. This law allows citizens to request certain records that can show us how our tax dollars are being spent and why public officials make the decisions they do. The law provides us, for example, payroll records of public employees, police logs, government expense reports, school construction plans and restaurant inspections. The law provides insight into how our government is working so we can know if and how it can be improved.
While Dr. Kois relied on his experience at the VA hospital to inform the community, other citizen watchdogs are using public records to expose questionable public policies. Nashua resident Laurie Ortolano’s use of property records and Right to Know Law requests recently led to an overhaul of the city’s assessing office. Hampton resident David Lang and the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire used public records several years ago to show that public employee health insurance premiums were commingled with other funds. Local municipalities received millions of dollars in refunds as a result.
We are all capable of sharing these kinds of stories, but only if we take steps to strengthen our state’s Right to Know Law. We can do so by:
• Supporting efforts to establish a Right to Know Law ombudsman. Requesters have few remedies when denied public records. An ombudsman would resolve disputes and provide citizens recourse outside an often costly and time-consuming legal process.
• Resisting additional fees. A bill was recently proposed in the Legislature that would have allowed agencies to charge citizens for records that exceed a certain time to produce. Such fees can be prohibitive to many citizens and they undermine the spirit of public record laws. This information, after all, is already owned by the public.
• Demanding transparency. As a New Hampshire resident you are entitled to public records. While the majority of public employees act in good faith, there are some who will abuse exemptions in the Right to Know Law to deny you the right to learn about government. Don’t accept “no” for an answer. Dig in and fight for the information you’re entitled to under the law.
The burden is on all of us — not just those like Dr. Kois — to fight secrecy each and every day. Trust in public institutions relies on our ability to shine sunlight wherever we find shadows.
Justin Silverman is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. Laura Simoes is executive director of the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.