The Nashua Board of Aldermen will be voting on a new Legal Office Right-to-Know (RTK) Management Position ($100,000). Given the current hiring freeze in the City, this position should be carefully reviewed.
According to Attorney Bolton (Personnel Committee Meeting 9/10/20), the courts are taking these requests for information more seriously which is creating risk exposure for the city, and there has been an increase in requests starting four to five years ago with a particularly high demand in the last two years.
It is important to understand that one of the reasons for the increase has been due to the concerns of the national advocates for freedom of information and transparency. They have been worried about State and local governments stonewalling and also using COVID-19 to stonewall.
Nashua is hardly a role model in this regard. In fact, stifling public access to information predates the pandemic. In one of my 2019 requests for sales letters, the legal office responded that it would take the City almost 4 years to complete. The legal office made no serious attempt to search for the records or determine if they even existed.
Since the pandemic, a request to review fifty abatement applications was stalled by limiting access to the information to 15-minute visits. Citing COVID-19 protocol setting 15-minute limits to visits to ensure access to everyone who might want an appointment, the City, in effect, told me to go away. Despite the fact that only a handful of people were requesting appointments each week, the Director forbade extending the time period to review the information. This is an unnecessary bureaucratic maneuver that further erodes public trust.
Though a new dedicated RTK manager, possibly a lawyer, might seem like a good idea, this move will not benefit the public, especially considering that this position will operate within the legal department. Historically, the legal office is not willing to communicate with the public to explain the information that is available nor are they willing to work with the public to minimize the burden to the City. In case this position is filled by a lawyer, we know lawyers are generally more skilled at parsing language. This might frustrate the average Nashua citizen making a general request.
Problems with filling Right-To-Know requests exist in many of our City agencies – Assessing, City Clerk, Finance, Health, Legal, Police, and Public Works. All City departments, top management, and elected officials need immediate training in Right-to-Know Law. What we need is policy development to create uniform standards in all departments. Training through the NHMA should be happening throughout City government, with a staff member in each department responsible for handling requests for information. Each department should be capable of determining what reports and documents are public and which may be restricted and why. Hopefully, the lawyers would only have to get involved in complicated situations.
Why do I believe a decentralized approach is even possible? Because this approach was working smoothly in the Assessing office for 20 years until the Director of Administrative Services took over in May 2019 and dismantled the function that specifically handled public requests for information.
Between September 2018 and May 2019, I was working with the Assessing clerical staff member whose job description was to fill public requests for information. The staff member was trained in Right-To-Know through the NHMA. It was simple and produced professional, timely responses. No one was complaining.
The Director of Administrative Services ordered a change in responding to public information requests in 2019. The legal office took over the process, was not familiar with the information requested, conducted minimal searches in an attempt to fill the request, and in the end, could not respond to the request in a timely manner. Hiring a $100,000 per annum lawyer will exacerbate, not solve the problems.
The Personnel Committee did not review this position. The Committee spent approximately 4 minutes to vote “yes” on a $100,000 permanent position while spending 60 minutes discussing a revision to the facemask ordinance. If the City is intent on hiring for this position, then we should at least have answers to these questions before making a final decision:
1) What is the job description for this position?
2) How will the public interface with this position?
3) Will a temporary position suffice until Departments and Divisions are RTK trained?
4) Will the School and Police Departments have all Right-To-Know requests going through legal?
5) Why is the city establishing a centralized permanent system when department employees have the expertise and knowledge to know what reports and records are available?
6) Explain what the current process and the future process will look like when a citizen submits a request for information.
Please email the Aldermen at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask them to send this back to committee for review. Support a decentralized Right-to-Know system that is efficient, cost-effective, customer-friendly and responsive. Our local newspapers have been leaders in mounting legal challenges to open records. These struggling businesses may no longer be resourced to pursue these challenges so let’s work together as a community to make sure records that should be public and accessible remain that way. Open societies and those who temporarily govern them should not be afraid to let in the fresh air.