State ponders changes to Right-to-Know Law

An illegal meeting held by Nashua officials prompted one of the several proposed changes to the state’s Right-to-Know Law being considered in Concord this year.

However, rather than boost the public’s access to government, this proposed change would create another exemption for government officials to meet behind closed doors.

Last year, a judge ruled city officials violated the Right-to-Know Law by meeting behind closed doors to discuss a proposed contract with the city’s teachers. Following the ruling, Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau asked the city’s legislative delegation to sponsor the bill.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on House Bill 379 sometime this week. At least seven other bills could make potentially meaningful or relatively minor changes to the law.

House Bill 379 would make it legal for a city’s legislative body – such as the board of aldermen – to meet behind closed doors with employer boards to discuss collective bargaining strategies.

Hillsborough Superior Court Judge William Groff sided with The Telegraph, agreeing the aldermen and school department violated the Right-to-Know Law when they met in closed session on the eve of a threatened teachers strike.

Nashua, unlike many New Hampshire cities and towns, has so-called employer boards – such as the Board of Education, the fire and police commissions and library trustees – between a union of city workers and the mayor and aldermen.

The Right-to-Know Law allows closed sessions for negotiations between the boards and unions, but the change would allow secret strategy sessions between the aldermen and employer boards.

Nashua Reps. David Cote and Pamela Price and Sen. Bette Lasky agreed to sponsor the bill.

When the aldermen and school officials met last spring, Lozeau admitted she thought the meeting was illegal but necessary to avoid a strike.

“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.”

Another bill, House Bill 328, would establish a new study committee to look at how the Right-to-Know Law applies to nonprofit agencies that are operating as public bodies.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rick Watrous, said the committee would study which nonprofits should abide by the Right-to-Know Law. His view is that nonprofits that get a majority of their funding from cities or towns should be held to the same standards of openness and accountability.

“If they’re primarily funded by a government body, I think people have a right to transparency, to look at their records and to attend their meetings,” Watrous said.

Several other bills would make relatively minor changes to the law:

House Bill 89 would exempt from the Right-to-Know Law information police uncover relating to suicides. The bill would add such information to the exemptions to the law, unless the information came from a criminal investigation.

House Bill 206 would clarify the law pertaining to how long electronic governmental records need to be retained. The bill would require that electronic records would have to be “kept and maintained” as long as their paper counterparts.

House Bill 210 changes how quickly the minutes of land-use boards, such as planning and zoning boards, need to be available. Currently the minutes have to be available for inspection 144 hours following the meeting. The bill would change that timeframe to five business days.

House Bill 266 would add another exemption to the Right-to-Know Law. The bill would exempt town and city checklist information, including name, street and mailing addresses and party affiliation of registered voters.

House Bill 53 would slightly change the definition of a public body, which the Right-to-Know Law applies to. It would remove agencies and authorities from the definition.

House Bill 135 would require courts to invalidate action taken by a public body if it’s determined that the meeting was held in violation of the Right-to-Know Law. Currently the courts may, but don’t have to, invalidate those actions.