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NHPA testifies in opposition to HB 1170

Bill would redefine “reasonably described” requirement when filing right-to-know requests.

 The bill states: “Reasonably described” means a document is identified with necessary specificity to allow a public employee to retrieve it without making an extensive search and, at a minimum, by date or a range of dates not exceeding 30 days, by type, which means by letter, minutes, or a report, and by title or subject matter.  

The two important changes to existing law is are add the term “extensive search” and impose a 30-day date range limit.

The NHPA filed this written opposition to the N.H. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Tuesday, January 21:

The New Hampshire Press Association appreciates the intent of this bill, which we interpret as to protect public employees from unwieldy or ill-defined right-to-know law requests that create an exhaustive time burden. This is not the first time this issue has been raised and likely will not be the last. However, we believe this legislation runs counter to the spirit of the right-to-know law as well as state statutes regulating the retrieval and release of public information by creating illegally broad discretion for public officials to deny legitimate requests for public documents.

For example, the legislation requires documents must be “identified with necessary specificity to allow a public employee to retrieve it without making an extensive search.”  It is this term “extensive search” that troubles us because it empowers public officials to define “extensive search” without providing any guidance or definition of what that means. This opens the door for officials to deny citizens access to public documents based on arbitrary time constraints and thus flies in the face of the very notion of “reasonably described” by allowing for public documents to be sealed from view for unreasonable justification.

RSA 91-A:4 proscribes that every citizen “has the right to inspect all governmental records in the possession, custody, or control of such public bodies or agencies …” , not simply the ones that are easily to get to. If this bill becomes law, potentially thousands of public documents would become off-limits to public review merely because they aren’t conveniently available. 

Another curious provision of the legislation is the outlawing of right-to-know requests with date ranges greater than 30 days. What constructive purpose this limitation serves escapes logic. People seeking 60 or more days of documents will just submit two or more requests instead of one.  

Furthermore, this legislation is unnecessary. Current law allows for those instances when the retrieval of public documents may take some time in section 91-A:4 IV: “If a public body or agency is unable to make a governmental record available for immediate inspection and copying, it shall, within 5 business days of request, make such record available, deny the request in writing with reasons, or furnish written acknowledgment of the receipt of the request and a statement of the time reasonably necessary to determine whether the request shall be granted or denied.”

Clearly, with its ill-defined and prohibitive provisions, this bill runs counter to the right-to-know law’s stated purpose “…to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”

Phil Kincade

Executive Director

New Hampshire Press Association

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