New Hampshire's Right-To-Know Law, which was passed to ensure that the public has reasonable access to meetings of public bodies and governmental records, has a noble aim.
But it has so many exemptions that it sometimes misses the mark.
For instance, the Right-To-Know Law gives public bodies — selectboards, school boards and the like — the right to go into nonpublic session to discuss matters which, if talked about in public, might adversely affect a person’s reputation. Meetings like these happen routinely at the local level, often when boards close their doors to talk about hiring, firing or disciplining an employee.
But the law also gives a person being discussed the right to have those talks take place in a public session.
But what if you were going to be talked about in nonpublic session and nobody told you?
We’re sure that happens, though just how frequently is unclear because, well, nonpublic sessions are exactly that — hidden from public view.
But, hypothetically, if a school board was going to discuss a matter concerning you and your child behind closed doors, you might like that discussion to take place in public — especially if you were at odds with the school district and felt as if you were being wronged by district policies and had the facts on your side.
The right of individuals to have matters heard in public is an important one, but if someone doesn’t know ahead of time that a board was going to talk about their case, they’re out of luck. As the law now reads, boards are not required to tell people when they will be the subject of a nonpublic session. That means selectboards, planning boards, zoning boards and boards of assessors are not required to inform developers or taxpayers that they will be talked about behind closed doors.
And if someone doesn’t know they’re going to be the subject of a nonpublic meeting, that effectively cancels out their right to have their issue heard in public.
This Catch-22 has been allowed to exist for years, but a bill that was heard this week in the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee would close that loophole.
It would require a board to notify a person at least 48 hours prior to the nonpublic session that they would be a topic of discussion, and the notification would have to be in writing.
That’s a big step in the right direction, since once someone knew a board wanted to talk about them, that person could make an informed decision about whether to have the discussion in public.
The bill, HB 1202, also spells out some additional rights for a subject of such a meeting, beyond the right to have the issue aired in open session.
It would also give a person the right to be present at the session during discussions, and when decisions are made that involve them. It would allow them to have present a lawyer or representative of their own choosing, for the purpose of giving advice. The bill would also allow a person being discussed to speak on his or her own behalf, and it would also allow the subject of a meeting to record the session or get a transcription at their own expense.
The bill — which is cosponsored by local lawmakers Rep. Michael Sylvia of Belmont and state Sen. Bob Giuda, whose district includes part of the Lakes Region — would fix an obvious flaw in the law that should have been taken care of a long time ago.