A new arrow has been added to the Citizen’s quiver: make’em pay!

by Skip

NH Right To KnowWe here at the ‘Grok have used RTK requests( NH’s RSA 91-A, the Right To Know law which is better known elsewhere as FOIA – Freedom Of Information Act) a few times in the past (Richard De Seve, the DES employee blogging on NH taxpayer dime, getting emails from the NH Water Commission that is looking to revoke private water rights) and we have a new project coming up soon.  I have also used this in my own town, and have given advice to others trying to get information from recalcitrant public officials and department at town, county, and State level.

One thing we have ALL found out is that when these recalcitrants decide to truly be recalcitrant (as in “Who do these subject believe themselves to be?  You’ll get it IF I feel like it and when I get around to it”), there was little recourse that the normal citizen had except to take their valuable time and spend their hard earned cash to sue in court to get data that they have already paid for via their taxes.  Elected officials and bureaucrats could just wait them out or stymie the requestors by withholding data – without worrying about any consequences .

BUT! not any MORE!  Thanks to Bob Guida, who had a hand in HB 1223, Citizens now have a way to make Big Government come to heel come January:

HB 1223, another bill set to take effect in January, clarifies the penalties that apply to public officials who wilfully withhold information in violation of a Right-to-Know request. It also adds a new civil penalty ranging from $250 to $2,000.

Beginning next month, any officer, employee, or other official of a public body or public agency who violates any provision of the Right-to-Know law in “bad faith” faces a civil penalty of up to $2,000. The court can also order offenders to undergo remedial training at their own expense.

“This is a law that’s being violated every day, and the reason is there’s no teeth in the law at all,” said Giuda, who also sponsored HB1223, at a hearing in April.

Under the existing law, citizens who are required to file a lawsuit in order to get access to public information are entitled to receive reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred in the lawsuit, provided that the court finds that the lawsuit was necessary in order to access the information.

The offender must also have known that the conduct engaged in was a violation of the Right-to-Know law.

The new law states that if the court finds that an “officer, employee, or other official of a public body or public agency” has violated any provision of the Right-to-Know law in “bad faith,” the court shall impose a civil penalty of not less than $250 and not more than $2,000.

Cool – I have not yet read the law but I hope that civil penalty is mandated from the guilty’s own pocket (and not just from the public Treasury).

Note: I found the image at a really old (and obviously abandoned) website called RightToKnowNH.org.  It was kinds cool to see one of the court cases that we have used (“Hawkins v. NH Department of Health and Human Services“) listed there.

(H/T: Foster’s Daily Democrat)

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  • nhsteve

    But they still have to go to court to get the information and then hope the judge fines the public employee? And the fines are paid by whom–town taxpayers?

    I’m not dissing that. It’s a huge improvement. No one is going to tolerate a multiple offender who is costing taxpayers money like that, so I think this is a great step.

    But Ed Naile and I used to talk about this with Jane on NHTR. We figured, until there was a threat of termination with out benefits and even jail time for a range of things like this, where the refusal or delay was intentional, the bureaucrats would continue to play handball with the judicial backstop if they felt it worth the risk. So the intimidation ploy continues to keep the average citizen from accessing or even asking about public documents and the bureaucrats keep covering for each other.

    All-in-all I think the fines will free up some information. I believe that some towns might try to find ways to make public records more easy to get to when requested. But in cases like the DES. They appear to have conveninelty lost an entire database to keep us from getting incriminating evidence.

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