State rep rails against 680-page $40 RTK request document dump

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State Rep Cliff Newton holds up the massive 680 pages from his RTK request (City of Rochester screenshot)

State rep David Bickford, R-New Durham, will soon be putting forward a bill that would allow citizens to make a Right to Know request by email without having to visit government offices to make the request, saving both the requestor and cities or towns time and money.
The blatant need for such a bill became painfully obvious on Tuesday when State rep Cliff Newton, R-Rochester, thumped 680 pages down on the podium in City Council chambers.
"I had to pay $40 for those 680 pages, many of which had one or two sentences on them," Newton told the council. "That's half my salary as a state rep after taxes."
Newton said he asked for various email strings between city officials while investigating a fatal crash at the corner of Portland and South Main streets in August.
He said city officials had the documents he wanted in electronic form but insisted on copying them onto paper.
"That's not very green," he quipped.
For Bickford, providing paper documents instead of electronically is like "going back to the horse and buggy days."
"Transparency in government is critical for a free society to thrive," Bickford added. "We especially learned that during the Vietnam Conflict when the people had a lot of information withheld from us then. It was at this time the Freedom of Information Act was created and in New Hampshire the Right to Know Law known as RSA 91-A. At that time most documentation was on paper. Today most of it is stored electronically or can be easily scanned and sent with the click on a computer the taxpayers have bought."
Bickford's bill, which has not been formally introduced to the New Hampshire Legislature and is now titled LSR 24-2529 would add the following language to the state's 91-A statute:
Nothing in this section shall prevent the public body or agency from accepting a governmental record request by electronic means or from providing such records electronically, without requiring the physical appearance of the citizen making the request.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Municipal Association is going around various cities and towns to opine that towns need not provide electronic documents or take electronic requests, but can force citizens to take time from their own busy lives to travel to various government departments and wait in line to speak to a clerk to see if they can inspect documents.
Asked why the NHMA and municipalities' are pushing this new agenda of showing up in person, Bickford said, "I don't really know, but I think it's about discouraging Right to Know requests in order to free municipalities from what is sometimes sporadic work. But by taking this hard line it could even create more work because it is more cumbersome not to use electronic communication."
Bickford contends that digital RTK compliance is "easier for both the requestor and the municipality and was being done in many municipalities until the New Hampshire Municipal Association told municipalities to stop."
Bickford said he would also like to add to 91-A that citizen be defined as a "citizen of the United States," not just New Hampshire as the City of Rochester is seeking to assert through its appeal of the state's Ombudsman's decision in the case of Rochester Voice v. City of Rochester. That appeal is being heard in Merrimack Superior Court sometime next year.
On Tuesday Newton said there are several bills that will be on the table next year that will deal with the intransigence of the state's municipal governments who are seeking to diminish the right for citizens to seek transparency and hold government accountable to the people.
The Rochester Voice reached out to Rochester City Attorney Terence O'Rourke for comment. If he replies we will update this article.
For a story about the City of Rochester appealing the RTK Ombudsman's decision click here

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