BROOKFIELD’S ED COMEAU, known for his work videotaping local and regional meetings of boards and commissions, is pictured here on May 15 outside Carroll County Superior Court in Ossipee after filing suit against the Carroll County Commissioners alleging their failure to comply with the N.H. Right to Know Law, RSA 91-A. (Mellisa Seamans photo) (click for larger version)
May 23, 2013OSSIPEE — As a result of the frustration and confusion over obtaining public documents, Ed Comeau of Brookfield and this reporter have jointly filed a complaint in Carroll County Superior Court alleging the Carroll County Commissioners have violated the provisions of the state's right to know law.
The complaint was filed May 15, naming Commission Chairman David Sorensen as the responsible party.
On April 17, this reporter had filed 12 right-to-know requests during the commission's weekly meeting. Two of the requested items were provided, leaving 10 that four weeks later had not been fulfilled. Seven of those are listed in the Superior Court complaint.
Under the NH RSA 91-A "Access to Governmental Records and Meetings," better known as NH Right to Know Law, "…every citizen during the regular or business hours of all public bodies or agencies, and on the regular business premises of such public bodies or agencies, has the right to inspect all governmental records in the possession, custody, or control of such public bodies or agencies." The process is described under NH RSA 91-A:4, IV, "Each public body or agency shall, upon request for any governmental record reasonably described, make available for inspection and copying any such governmental record within its files when such records are immediately available for such release. If a public body or agency is unable to make a governmental record available for immediate inspection and copying, it shall, within five business days of request, make such record available, deny the request in writing with reasons, or furnish written acknowledgment of the receipt of the request and a statement of the time reasonably necessary to determine whether the request shall be granted or denied."
This reporter did receive a response on April 18 acknowledging the requests for information had been received and that the commissioners would "need additional time to respond to the requests," but no date was given for when the work would be complete.
The items requested include a copy of a contract, copies of financial policies and procedures, copy of a safety survey, copy of an insurance settlement, and two employee-leave related questions, and the opportunity to look at some other files.
The commissioners were asked on May 1 and May 15 about the status of the requests and the answer was unclear as to who was responsible for gathering the requested information. Sorensen said on May 15 that Commissioner Kenney was responsible but she was also absent that day.
For at least the past two years there has been no clear process for the pubic to use when trying to get public documents from the county complex. For a time, all requests were to go to the business office. Then the public was told to send requests to the commissioner's designated email, then to that email and to the finance manager. For a time, requests were supposed to be sent to the human resources department and the commissioners and then just the human resources department. Right to know requests are routinely not responded to on a timely basis, within the five days required by law, and some have never been responded to.
This reporter filed another request for information on May 14, asking for a chance to look the service agreements for all photocopiers on the county complex. At the May 15 meeting, commissioners said all of the contracts should be in the business office and there was no need to go to each individual department to get the contracts. Then on May 17, the finance manager sent an email to this reporter, stating the way to get the copier contracts is to go to all the individual departments instead.
On May 15, this reporter filed yet another right-to-know request asking for copies of past grievances filed by employees. As of four days into the five day response limit, no reply about the status of this request had been received.
It is this lack of a clear procedure that is confusing the public and causing increasing frustration. Newly-elected Commissioner David Babson has long advocated for a more transparent county government, even filing a suit of his own in Superior Court against a previous board for their alleged violation of the right-to-know law. Prior to his election, Babson also pushed on a regular basis for the commissioners to release non-public meeting minutes, as allowed by law, once issues were resolved. Since his taking office in January, he has tried without success to get his fellow commissioners to release some records including the outcome of the two-year-old grievance filed by a former employee against Commissioner Asha Kenney.
Comeau attends and videotapes commissioner's meetings and other county-related meetings for posting on his website at www.governmentoversite.com. "All elected and appointed officials should be reminded that they do not function above the law. 91-A requests for information should not be treated as a grocery list, things to provide, when one has time. The people should not be asked to beg for the information they need to keep a check on government. It shall be provided as the law requires and not be treated as an inconvenience, but a necessary function of government," said Comeau.
A hearing on the case is scheduled for Tuesday, June 25 at 9 a.m. at Carroll County Superior Court in Ossipee.