The Right-to-Know law in the state of New Hampshire is powerful. This law ensures that all government decision making is transparent. It also ensures that all public business is conducted in meetings that are open to the public. This helps with not only transparency, but also accountability.
Since the Right-to-Know law applies to all public bodies, you would think there would be few questions regarding any meeting. However, it is not always clear the law is being followed when government employees hold a regular meeting behind closed doors.
Do those meetings actually cross the threshold? Should those meetings actually be held in the public eye?
This question did arise during the case of Martin v. City of Rochester.
This case was brought to court when the City of Rochester’s Municipal Technical Review Group held an informal meeting with government employees. These employees were from different departments. Their role was to aid applicants with the meeting code requirements for any development requests.
This group was basically created to help the request process go smoothly for everyone involved. So, when a commercial development request was received, the group could move the process along. This would be quite different from the length of time it would take the person making the request to meet with numerous city departments at different times, as well as the time it would take for rezoning approval, environmental permits, and all other approvals and variances.
The plaintiff in this case, Martin, argued that the group was violating the Right-to-Know law by not holding these meetings in a public setting.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court disagreed with Martin, stating that the Municipal Technical Review Group was not a public body and did not need to follow the Right-to-Know law. Since the group was not an advisory committee, they did not need to hold public meetings. After all, they were not part of the decision making team. Instead, they acted as a committee who raised concerns about the requests. The requests still needed to be approved or denied by each department separately, as well as by the town planning board or council.
Other staff committee exemptions from the Right-to-Know law include:
- Any committee created by the city manager or chief executive
- Any committee that doesn’t have final decision making authority
- Any committee that is simply providing feedback to applicants
- Any committee that does not provide unified recommendations to the planning board
- There is no process that prevents an application from moving forward through the planning board process
The court’s ruling on this case may appear straightforward. However, there are many other nuances that need to be considered when a committee decides to meet behind closed doors and avoid the Right-to-Know law. After all, even the recommendation from one individual of a department has a huge impact on whether or not the planning board approves or denies a request.
If you are concerned about your rights with the Right-to-Know law and a request you have submitted, please contact us today to schedule a consultation.