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Right-to-Know and Transparency

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Citizens Count Editor
Summary

Article 8 of the New Hampshire Bill of Rights states, “the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”

New Hampshire codifies that right to access in RSA 91-A, the state’s right-to-know law. 

New Hampshire’s right-to-know law

About the law

The New Hampshire right-to-know law applies to almost every elected official, board, committee, and agency affiliated with state or local government, from the governor down to a municipal conservation commission.

In general, the right-to-know law requires:

  • Advanced notice and public access to meetings, including the right to record meetings;
  • Detailed minutes of meetings, including how each person voted;
  • Access to all governmental records, including emails and other electronic records.

If a public body cannot provide immediate access to records — for example if they are archived at another location — the body has five days to provide a written response to a right-to-know request.  That response must explain when the records will be available.

A public body does not have to change the format of a record, such as converting records from print to digital scans. It also does not have to create a record that does not already exist.

Click here to read all of New Hampshire’s right-to-know law, RSA 91-A

How to make a right-to-know request

Right-to-know requests should be made in writing to the person who is the custodian of the records being sought. Get tips for composing your right-to-know request. Any citizen may also request access to inspect the records being held by any state or local government body anytime during regular business hours.

Right-to-know costs

Citizens have the right to inspect existing documents without being charged.

Public bodies can charge a citizen for the cost of physical copies of public records.  There is no law on how much public bodies can charge for physical copies of public records.  Some municipalities charge as much as $1 per page.

However, public bodies cannot charge the citizen for the time employees spend responding to the right-to-know request or retrieving records.

Exceptions to right-to-know

In some circumstances, a public body may keep meetings and records confidential.  Those circumstances are usually to protect the privacy of individuals, public safety, or the negotiating power of the government.  For example, personal school records of pupils are exempt from disclosure requirements.  Emergency response plans are also protected from the public eye, as are consultations with lawyers. 

If a public body is denying a request to view or copy records because of one of those exceptions, they need to provide a written statement to the person making the request. Starting in January 2020, the statement must also list the specific reason the materials are exempt from the state's right-to-know-laws. 

Complaints

Government officials and employees in New Hampshire do not have to undergo right-to-know training, unlike in some other states.  However, individuals and governments can be held legally accountable for violating the right-to-know law.

Under current New Hampshire law, any citizen can file a lawsuit in superior court if they believe a public body violated the right-to-know law. 

If the court sides with the citizen, the government may have to produce records and pay for the citizen’s attorney fees.  However, the law only allows a court to award attorney fees if government agents “knew or should have known” they were violating the right-to-know law.

Given the high costs of such lawsuits, some right-to-know advocates support the creation of a state ombudsman who could rule on right-to-know complaints without all the costs associated with a superior court case.

It is also a misdemeanor to destroy any information with the intention of preventing such information from being revealed by a right-to-know request. 

Other government transparency initiatives

Courts

The right-to-know law does not apply to courts, although New Hampshire courts have established rules to give the public access to court records.  Those rules include a charge of at least $0.50 per photocopy or printout. 

Law enforcement

In recent years some transparency advocates have pushed for more transparency in law enforcement activity, from requiring officers to wear body cameras to creating a public database of drone use.  Most of those efforts have failed to pass at the state level.

Visit our police brutality issue page to learn more about transparency in law enforcement

Budget

New Hampshire created the TransparentNH website as a portal for residents to easily browse state government expenses, tax revenue, employee salaries, and more.

Visit the TransparentNH website

Conflict of interest and financial interests

To increase transparency in government, New Hampshire law requires officials elected and appointed at the state level to file a statement of financial interests. That statement requires officials to report any source of income over $10,000 in the past year, and to report if they have a special interest in any other activity that could be financially affected by government action.  They must also report these for other household members, including spouses and children.

See all financial interest filings on the secretary of state website

Legislators and executive branch officials must also report any honorariums or expense reimbursement they receive.

See all honorariums and expense reimbursement reports on the secretary of state website

All lobbyists must also register with the secretary of state.

Transparency in nonprofits

The right-to-know law also does not necessarily apply to nonprofits and other organizations that receive funding from the government.  Those groups have to reveal some information, however.

Tax-exempt nonprofits must file form 990 with the federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  Those filings are accessible to the public, and include information such as the compensation of board members and total expenses.

New Hampshire nonprofits must also register with the Charitable Trusts Unit of the attorney general’s office. The registration form includes contact information for every board member.

Author:
Citizens Count Editor

“NH is transparent enough in its government operations.”

  • New Hampshire’s right-to-know law fairly balances the need for transparency with available government resources.  Citizens are generally able to inspect government documents on-site at no cost, and there is an appeals process through the courts when a request is believed to have been unjustly denied. 
  • If New Hampshire requires state and local governments to make all information available online and/or in open formats it will increase costs, which will lead to higher taxes or cuts to other government services.  Similarly, allowing citizens to file online right-to-know requests would increase the likelihood of people who live outside New Hampshire, such as employees of national special interest groups, making requests.
  • Costs for printouts, photocopies, and other physical media can vary significantly from town to town, since larger municipalities often have access to discounts for bulk purchases of paper and other products.  Due this variation, any state law limiting what municipalities can charge for right-to-know records would be unfair to small towns.
  • Creating an ombudsman or commission to review right-to-know complaints would create a new bureaucracy of unknown size and cost.
Author:
Citizens Count Editor

“NH is not transparent enough in its government operations.”

  • The superior court appeals process for right-to-know requests is costly and intimidating for residents.  This makes it less likely a citizen will object to a public body denying a right-to-know request, even if it is illegal.  New Hampshire needs to create an ombudsman or commission that can review right-to-know complaints to rebalance power between citizens and their government.  An ombudsman or commission would also be less costly for municipalities than being taken to court.
  • The New Hampshire Municipal Association, Right to Know NH, and other groups all offer training for government employees and officials on the state’s right-to-know law, but that training is not mandatory.  Requiring such training would not cost very much, but could greatly decrease the number of right-to-know law violations.
  • Some public bodies charge excessive amounts for paper copies of information.  When it comes to electronic records, sometimes government officials will charge a citizen for the cost of a USB drive or paper printouts when an email could be sent at no cost.  New Hampshire needs laws to prevent these unjust charges to citizens.
  • In 2015 the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity gave New Hampshire an F grade for public access to government information, ranking New Hampshire 49th out of all states. Similarly, in 2018 the U.S. Public Interest Research Group ranked New Hampshire 28th out of all states in providing online access to government spending data. These rankings demonstrate that New Hampshire can be much more transparent.

 

Comments

Mike

We should have as much transparency in our state and federal governments as is possible and safe. That said, televising various proceedings often makes a spectacle of them, so in some cases a written record may be preferable.

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