NH State Rep Jan Schmidt was the sole sponsor for two House bills to restrict access to public records, HB 1170, ‘Adding a definition of “reasonably described” to the right-to-know law’, and HB 1307, ‘Relative to the cost of production of records under the right-to-know law’.
Her bills appeared to be a direct response to Nashua resident Laurie Ortolano’s work to expose the incompetence at the Nashua Assessing Office, for which Laurie has filed many Right to Know requests, much to the chagrin of Mayor Jim Donchess and his staff. Jan also serves as a Nashua alderman and she wants to protect her friends.
Phil Kincade, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Press Association, gave testimony in opposition to HB 1307.
Clearly the intent of this bill is not to define constructive avenues for government to be reasonably reimbursed for the cost of right to know requests. Its purpose is to discourage citizens from seeking public documents.
The Nashua Telegraph covered the controversy surrounding these bills
“This reasonably described language would allow the city to very quickly dismiss requests without ever reaching out or contacting the requester in an attempt to understand what information is being sought,” Ortolano said.
Both bills were criticized in an editorial by Justin Silverman, Executive Director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, and Laura Simoes, Executive Director of the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications printed in the Union Leader for Sunshine Week.
A bill was recently proposed in the state legislature that would have allowed agencies to charge citizens for records that exceed a certain time to produce. Such fees can be prohibitive to many citizens and they undermine the spirit of public record laws. This information, after all, is already owned by the public.
In spite of the criticism, Jan Schmidt was excited about the “How Transparent is NH Government and Why It Matters” panel that was being held at Nashua Community College to celebrate Sunshine Week. She posted an open invitation to everyone on her personal Facebook page and she attended herself. However, during the panel presentation, Dean Shalhoup, long time reporter for the Nashua Telegraph, had harsh criticism for her bills and after that Jan packed up and left the event. You can see in her Facebook posts that she was not happy with the outcome commenting “Apparently the RTK laws are sacrosanct and must never be changed for any reason.”
The next day both bills met an ignominious end when they were voted as Inexpedient to Legislate on a voice vote as part of the House’s consent calendar.