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Joyce Endee

Commissioners get advice about releasing minutes

September 08, 2011
OSSIPEE— County commissioners tried to respond to a question that comes up during at least every other weekly commission meeting: "when will minutes from past non-public sessions be released to the public?"

Carroll County Attorney Tom Dewhurst tried, speaking in the most general terms, to clarify when non-public minutes can be released, but after lengthy discussion "it's a case by case basis" was the closest thing to a concrete answer. "It's not clear cut, is the answer," said Dewhurst.

County commissioners, precinct commissioners, and boards of selectmen go into non-public session for a number of reasons that are clearly spelled out by the state's right-to-know law, RSA 91-A. Those reasons include, in part, hiring, firing, discipline or compensation of an employee, contract or land sale negotiations, pending claims of litigation against the public body, the general "matters which, if discussed in public, likely would adversely affect the reputation of any person."

For years, no minutes of non-public sessions were ever released once they were sealed in the commissioner's non-public session. Mainly, as Commissioner David Sorensen pointed out, because no one from the public ever attended their weekly meetings and no one ever asked. Now, regular public attendees have been demanding that the commissioners review non-public minutes and release minutes regarding matters that have been resolved.

At last week's meeting Commissioner Dorothy Solomon asked if minutes could be released if the name of the person involved in the non-public session could be redacted and the minutes released. Dewhurst cautioned that this has to be done on a case-by-case basis. He added there can be sensitive issues in non-public minutes and the privacy of the person in the session cannot be violated either directly or indirectly.

"If you have a case when there is a grievance from the union and it goes through the whole works, what is wrong with making those public as long as you don't put the person's name in it…the public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and don't need to know what the person's name is. It would be nice to see how the case is adjudicated. I think we have a right to know and if it costs us any money," said NH Representative David Babson.

Dewhurst agreed that while details of settlements "simply may never be released" but amounts of settlements can be released.

Solomon said the public may not know who the person is but the person who works with the one who the session referred to might be able to identify them.

Dewhurst also added that if the public wants the commissioners to be able to handle this volume of records management they need to be prepared to provide in staffing and scheduling for the increased workload.

"Usually if you go into non-public and if you've done it properly under the proper things for the reasons stated in the statute that is usually the reason they stay sealed because of the content of them. If there is a circumstance where that changes and information is released that determines it isn't non-public, that's on a case-by-case basis," said Dewhurst.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Varney Smith
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