Hudson - Litchfield News 6 - August 26, 2011
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In My Opinion...
by George Lambert, Litchfield Selectman and State Representative, Hillsborough 27 As a public official I have had much exposure to the ins and outs of the Right to Know law RSA 91-a. My desire to study the intricacies of the law came in response to a front page article in the April 27, 2007 Hudson~Litchfield
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News in which the Litchfield Board of Selectmen were accused of holding an illegal non-public session, and breaking the Right to Know law. The Right to Know law is easy to read but difficult to correctly interpret, as it is full of complex contradictions. This law tries to describe, in detail, the specifics of what rights and privileges the public has to observe the business of government conducted in the state of New Hampshire. It clarifies, in specific, a clause in the New Hampshire Constitution called Part First Article 8 which declares “[Accountability of Magistrates and Officers; Public’s Right to Know]. All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable, and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.” However, the more time I spend in New Hampshire Government, the more concerned I am that some of those involved are using exceptions in this law to circumvent the spirit and intention of this aspect of the Constitution. This became a quest for me to understand what and where information was being hidden from the people, by action or inaction. I began to promise people that I would detail my findings for the public in a book I would call “Life in non-public.” As a public official I believe that the people should have the right to know how decisions made on their behalf. I believe that the information used to make those decisions, and the deliberations themselves, should be open to public scrutiny whenever possible.
by George Lambert Local government needs to be transparent and truthful
I believe that the public should be able to hold their public officials accountable for the decisions they are making, and for behaviors undertaken on behalf of the public.
Here in Litchfield and across this state,
when citizens and public officials demand open access to this information they can run into roadblocks. Evidence of this was brought to my attention again this week when a resident pointed out the Litchfield School Board Agenda Item 2A) Actions of a Board Member on the LSD 8-24-11 Agenda. I am told that this item is a placeholder to discuss the issue of a school board member openly discussing a recommendation to Superintendent Elaine Cutler from the School District Attorney Gordon Graham on how to structure the warrant articles for the upcoming election. I can not understand “why would the school board (made up of elected public servants) fear sharing their decision making process and the advice of council on options available to present important decisions to the voters on a public ballot?” After reading the opinion (which had been posted by a school board member, after it was read it aloud at a school board meeting) the problem became clear. It was exactly the same problem that was explained to me years ago by Dennis Miller while I was the selectmen’s rep to the budget committee. The legal opinion explained that, “there is a risk in giving people a choice at the ballot, because they could say “no.” If however you lump everything together – the school administration can move money around as they see fit within their bottom line budget.” Should this information be a secret? Is this information important to the decision making process? Shouldn’t the public have the right to know how the school board came to this decision? If the school board decides that this “Legal Opinion” from the administration’s attorney was “too sensitive” and never supposed to be released - what options will the school board pursue to remedy the situation? Will this attempt to include the public in the decision making process be the catalyst for the school board to remove a member who has been trying to include the public in the process? If the school board were to decide that this rises to a level that requires removal of a school board member - how many tax dollars will they divert in legal
fees from education to accomplish that goal? Would spending the cost of a single phone call be a responsible use of those tax dollars? Based on behaviors I have seen from boards across the state, I would say that members of a board may think so. Based on my experience and information many of these boards across the state believe that once elected - they can use any and all means necessary to screen or hide their decisions and process from the people through either non-public sessions or meetings with legal counsel often referred to as non-meetings exempt from RSA 91-a. Is this really the intent of Article 8 of our Constitution? Is this a government that is meeting its requirement that “The Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive?” If this board or any such board were to try to prevent the public from understanding their deliberative process would they be fulfilling the other charge of the Constitution that demands “the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted?” Are any elected officials who try to suppress the process by which they give decision making power to a legislative body (that is the government term for the voters in New Hampshire) actually violating their own oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution of the State of New Hampshire? We need to encourage our elected officials to professionally “at all times [be] accountable to them [the people].” Those officials through every action, decision, or inaction must be mindful of their responsibility to protect that sacred constitutional ideal “the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.” It is my opinion that citizens are responsible to ask questions and express concerns that will keep their government and elected officials in check by requiring them to disclose how the people’s business is being transacted. It is important for the people to know what decisions and commitments are being made on their behalf behind closed doors. It is each of our responsibilities to empower those voices as whistle blowers when they are keeping us in the know about the operation of those who make decisions on our behalf.
In My Opinion is strictly an OP-ED column that stands on the opinion of one writer, George Lambert, as opposed to a newspaper reporter who does not provide an opinion but reports the facts. This column, in many instances, is a counterpoint to published stories and does not reflect the unbiased reporting policy of the Hudson-Litchfield News or the opinion of the management, advertisers and ownership of Area News Group.
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