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NHPA testifies in opposition to HB 1307 which would unfairly charge for right-to-know information requests

Re: House Bill 1307 stipulates “If the production of records for one requester in a calendar month exceeds 5 person-hours, the public agency shall require the requester to pay the personnel costs required during the month to complete the search and copying tasks. “

The New Hampshire Press Association submitted this written testimony in opposition.

Members of the N.H. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee:

In judging the merits of any bill, it is vital to consider the legislation’s intent and whether it is in keeping with the spirit and letter of existing law. 

In reviewing House Bill 1307, the New Hampshire Press Association believes its objective is to restrict public requests for government documents by placing arbitrary and unfair financial burdens on requestees and is incompatible with the New Hampshire Right to Know Law and its supporting statutes.

If information is part of the public record it should be made available to the public without charge except for the actual cost of producing a physical document. That is what RSA 91-A proscribes and what has been upheld in the courts (Hawkins v. NH Department of Health and Human Services, 147 N.H. 376 (2001). The Press Association believes that is a fair balance.

A citizen’s access to public information should not be limited or restricted to his or her ability to pay.  Just as our notion of criminal justice is founded on the belief that every defendant has a right to competent legal representation regardless of means, so too does our commitment to a democratic society rest on the premise that every citizen is entitled to unencumbered access to government information. 

What this bill says in essence is that if a citizen requests information that takes longer than five hours to collect  in a month then that citizen must hire government workers as private contractors to gather documents that belong to the public. And because the legislation stipulates that the costs should include not just government worker wages but their benefits package as well, the eventual price tag may very well be prohibitive for many citizens. That is wrong.

In addition, there are sufficient loopholes in this bill to render it useless.

For example, what if a citizen is informed his or her right to know request will take eight hours to complete. What is to prevent the person from asking for fours worth of documents during the current month and the other four hours the next? What is to prevent a person from getting family and friends to submit multiple right to know requests to keep each under the five hours a month cap?

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. That renders it patently undemocratic and at flagrant odds with New Hampshire values of open government for all.

Phil Kincade

Executive Director

New Hampshire Press Association

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