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Monday, October 12, 2009

The public has the right to know

The Concord Monitor editorial page comes out swinging for New Hampshire's Right to Know Law.

In this particular case, the state firefighters union is seeking salary information for the center's employees, suggesting that information is needed to determine whether money collected for health insurance is being used instead for compensation. It's certainly a provocative issue, but why the union wants the information is actually irrelevant. One of the virtues of the state's right-to-know law is that you don't have to say why you want to know. Remember, it's your business.
New Hampshire's Right to Know Law, RSA 91-A, is stronger in spirit than it is in practice. It was written when access to public records meant walking into Town Hall and asking to see a copy of property appraisals, for instance. You can do that, but more often, what the public is looking for are electronic records, such as the salary and benefit data sought by the state firefighters union.

A fair reading of the law allows information seekers to get their information in any format in which it is kept. So instead of a print out, they can get a copy of the Excel file. But the law in unclear, leaving room for bureaucratic manipulation and delay. It should be improved. For now, we rely on the good will of those filling our Right to Know requests to comply with the law, rather than attempt to hide behind it.

This is why we use this space to praise those state agencies who have shown a willingness to go beyond the minimal requirements of the Right to Know Law, and upheld its spirit. We're currently working with the Department of Revenue Administration to determine how the spending freeze Executive Orders have been implemented, and they've opened up their office to us. The Attorney General's Office this summer turned over an electronic copy of the entire case file in the Leishman Railroad Lease investigation.

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