By David Saad
Government transparency is not a partisan issue. It is a core value in a democracy and helps voters make informed decisions. Yet, when our state, counties, school districts, and municipal government agencies meet behind closed doors government transparency becomes limited. While there are some legitimate reasons why these agencies may exclude the public from attending meetings, these meetings should still be sufficiently documented to ensure a record is kept of all actions and discussions which occurred during nonpublic meetings.
Right to Know New Hampshire — a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know Law — recently authored and submitted to the state’s House of Representatives three bills that will help increase public disclosure and improve access to government meetings.
- House Bill 2016-H-2581 | This bill requires the content for nonpublic meeting minutes meet the same minimum standard as public meeting minutes. Historically, some public agencies have skirted the spirit of the Right-to-Know Law by producing nonpublic minutes with less content than their public minutes counterparts. This bill will now require that both public and nonpublic minutes meet the same minimum content requirements, including the names of members present, persons appearing before the governmental agency, a brief description of the subject discussed and all final decisions made. With few exceptions, the public has the right to know who attended and what transpired during a nonpublic meeting. This bill will increase the public’s ability to exercise that right and to know the actions of its government.
- House Bill 2016-H-2582 | This bill requires that when a vote is taken during a nonpublic meeting, the minutes of that meeting shall record all votes such that each member’s vote is recorded, so you, the voter, will know how your elected officials are representing you. The law is currently vague in regard to how votes are to be recorded during nonpublic sessions, allowing for the possibility that the exact voting record of each public official is not recorded. Since the public is excluded from nonpublic sessions, any degree of secrecy in the way that our government officials vote diminishes government transparency and accountability. With this bill, the exact vote of each public official is required to be recorded in the meeting minutes.
- House Bill 2016-H-2580 | This bill requires that when a quorum of a public body convenes for the specific purposes of strategy or negotiations related to collective bargaining or for consultation with legal counsel, a record of the meeting must be kept. The record only contains minimal information such as meeting place, date, time, and the people in attendance. Currently, the law does not require any record be kept of such meetings. Having no record of such meetings raises concerns among the public that our government is conducting business in secret. A simple record that a meeting took place does not jeopardize the privileged nature of these meetings, but does help to remove the veil of secrecy and provide a greater level of public disclosure and government transparency.
Citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of their government. Part I, Article 8, of the New Hampshire Constitution states that government should be open, accessible, accountable, and responsive. RSA 91-A, known as the Right-To-Know Law, states that “openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society.” The purpose of the Right-To-Know Law “is to ensure the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.” Government transparency is a prerequisite for government accountability.
David is president of Right to Know New Hampshire and can be emailed at email@example.com.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.