Right to Know ombudsman may be the grease that gets the 91-A ball rolling

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BRING DOWN THE CONE OF SILENCE: Rochester City Attorney Terence O'Rourke calls for a nonmeeting (secret) at the 1:32 mark prior to a June 5 revote on whether to buy a $300,000 parcel in East Rochester for a third city fire station. (Screenshot)

Editor's note: The Rochester Voice today continues an occasional series that focuses on Rochester's government and its intransigence in providing open access to information. Whether it's dubious actions regarding Right to Know requests or blatant refusal to reply to simple questions regarding policy and issues, accountability and transparency often fall short of what is necessary in a democracy.
Today we will take a look at the state's decision to adopt a Right to Know ombudsman's office that will be charged with settling Right to Know disputes between citizens and municipalities..

Rochester residents frustrated by the city's lack of transparency in Right to Know matters now have another tool in their toolbox when it comes to seeking to hold government officials accountable.

That's because Gov. Chris Sununu signed into Law HB481, which establishes the office of the right-to-know ombudsman which will provide a simpler, less expensive, and faster alternative process to resolve complaints under RSA 91-A.

In the past, complainants needed to seek redress in superior court, which can be costly and time-consuming.

Citizens throughout New Hampshire can still go through the courts if they want, but the alternative of going through the ombudsman's office will most likely get a lot of takers.

For a onetime $25 fee, anyone can file a Right to Know grievance with the office, which would preclude them from pursuing the matter in superior court while it's in the ombudsman's purview.

The position will be part of the Department of State. The person chosen will be appointed by the governor and Executive Council.

According to language in the bill, the $25 fee can be waived.

Once the ombudsman's office makes formal notice of a complaint to a municipality the city or town has 20 calendar days to refute or rebut the claim.

Additionally the ombudsman can compel testimony and documents as well as hold hearings, order disclosure and issue findings.

The ombudsman's final rulings which are not appealed may be registered in the superior court as judgments and made enforceable through contempt of court.

If such action is necessary to enforce compliance, all costs and fees, including reasonable attorney fees, shall be paid by the noncompliant public body or public agency.

The Rochester Voice, State Reps Cliff Newton and Tom Kaczynski have all expressed frustration with Rochester's lack of disclosure of information in a timely fashion, especially when controversial votes are pending in the City Council.

"Absolutely I am in favor of this," Newton said earlier this month. "This will help to hold government accountable. I took a case to superior court some time ago, and it cost me $125. I don't know what it costs now, but $25 is a lot better than $125."

The cost to bring a complaint to superior court today is $280.

Below are links to several stories that belie the City of Rochester's earnest pursuit of transparency. Perhaps now some of these issues may abate.

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