This week in March is designated as the sunshine week which highlights the first amendment rights of the citizens in petitioning the government established by their consent. Right to know (Freedom of Information Act)is a corner stone legislation that enables transparency and accountability in governmental affairs. Every citizen has the right to have access to the records of governmental bodies at every level as they conduct "people's" business and spend tax dollars in that process. Of course, the law exempts that access in specific instances such as when national security, public safety, criminal prosecution, etc. are involved.
Nackey Loeb School of Communications teaming up with the NE First Amendment Center offered a workshop to educate people about the process to elicit governmental information through the use of that law in New Hampshire. I attended that workshop and learned quite a bit about the mechanics involved in petitioning the government for specific information. Union Leader Counsel Mr. Sullivan educated us on the specifics of statutes, their scope and exemptions concerning the citizen's access through the right to know window. Nashua Telegraph journalists Phil Kinkaid and Johnathan Van Fleet provided actual instances of their involvement in gaining access to information of government bodies ranging from Nashua city government to state government. The " Duck Caper" of New Hampshire (don't get confused with the TV show duck dynasty) where a Democratic representative ran over a bunch of ducks killing them and then mysteriously disappeared over night with a police commissioner appointed by the governor providing cover to his friend was one such example provided.
One of the biggest exemptions allowed by the Right to Know is personnel record of a public employee. It seems to happen so often throughout the state that a public employee would be put on "administrative leave"- aka suspended- with pay without any acknowledgment of the cause for that action. The next thing that the public would be told is that a deal was struck between the attorney representing the employee and the governmental body involved, usually either a Board of Selectmen or a School Board and the employee would resign usually with monetary award of some kind while absolving everyone involved from any wrong doing. The public whose dollars are used is kept completely in the dark. The agreement signed by the two parties would prohibit any public disclosure or discussion of the matter, sealing it for ever.
That loop hole must be plugged. If any one gets hired by a governmental body and is paid through tax dollars, the cause for the discharge of that employee must be made public. The public has a right to know because potentially future public safety may be involved.
At the extreme end of that concern stands the Exeter Hospital employee who was a drug addict and caused tremendous harm to the patients through the use of syringes. That individual had a track record of abuse stretching into several states. It required a massive public harm to bring that addictive behavior to light. The employer under the statutes can not have full access to that kind of employee record because it gets buried under right to privacy laws. Even though tax payer dollars may not have been directly involved in that case, it is easy to see how harmful it could get when information regarding abusive behavior of an employee directly involved with public health is lawfully shielded from access. Unless the employee behavior reveals itself as a criminal matter (when the damage is already done) the public is kept in the dark. We must change the laws to shine the light on those cases early enough before innocent people needlessly become victims.
Our New Hampshire legislators guided by the Democratic party ideology are more interested in lessening the severity of punishment of hard core criminals (some in that party even favoring restoration of voting rights of felons!) than defending the rights of the innocent people. Art.31 of Bill Of Rights of the New Hampshire Constitution states: "The legislature shall assemble for the redress of public grievances and for making such laws as the public good may require". What public good is served by repealing the death penalty for heinous murders while protecting the potential harm of a public employee relieved of his duty for a cause that is shrouded in secrecy which could pose great danger to the public in his/her future employment?