Claremont files aren’t easy to get
Claremont’s responses to Right-to Know Law requests were found to be lacking in both timeliness and substance when compared to New Hampshire’s 12 other cities and the towns of Charlestown and Newport, an Eagle Times investigation has found.
The New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law, properly known as RSA 91-a, governs what municipal records the public may access and provides cities and towns a process for providing them.
On June 13, the Eagle Times sent identical Right-to- Know-Law requests to the state’s 13 cities — plus Charlestown and Newport — asking for copies of the previous tax year’s abatements — whether approved or denied. To avoid wasting employees’ time and taxpayer money, as soon as the paper received a response, the requests were downgraded from the full abatement packets — which can contain page upon page of property details — to a simple spreadsheet or list containing the abatement requests that were approved or denied.
“It was a simple request and these are public records,” said Charlestown Planning and Zoning Administrator David Edkins, who handled the Eagle Times’ request, during an interview last Monday. “We usually don’t make people go through the formal (written) process for what is a public record.”
Every community responded to the abatement request within three business days — the law allows municipalities five business days to reply — asking for clarifications, inviting Eagle Times staff to come look at the records, or explaining the number of abatements involved and how expensive the copies would be.
In Claremont’s case, City Solicitor Jane Taylor responded that, due to her vacation, the paper’s June 13 request would not be handled until at least June 25. The records still had not been provided as of yesterday. With the exceptions of Dover and Concord, no other city referred requests through their legal counsel, instead leaving the requests up to the city manager, assessor or clerk’s office — although lawyers were typically copied on responses.
The cities of Lebanon, Berlin, Rochester and Somersworth — in addition to Newport and Charlestown — all provided a spreadsheet in electronic form at no cost. Lebanon was the most prompt. Officials in that city emailed a list of abatements within four hours of receiving the initial email from the paper.
Taylor told the Eagle Times yesterday that the city has no spreadsheet or list of abatements.
Manchester, Nashua, Rochester and Portsmouth, citing the volume of documents involved, suggested the paper’s staff visit in person.
Claremont officials never suggested the abatements were available for public inspection, though the law clearly says that they are .
Charlestown, Berlin, Franklin and Lebanon all confirmed to a reporter that anyone would be allowed to walk in and view abatement files — although a walk-in could be asked to make an appointment and return.
Not so in Claremont.
“We like to have it in writing,” Taylor told the Eagle Times on Monday, referring to Claremont’s policy of sending all requests for information through the solicitor’s office.
Even — apparently — the verbal requests.
In a separate and unrelated request, the Eagle Times walked into the Claremont Planning and Development Office on Monday morning to view health complaints that might have been filed against local restaurants.
Claremont Health Inspector Glenn Partridge told a reporter that the complaints required a written 91-a request to view them. When asked if he knew whether the records were public or not, he responded that they “certainly are public,” but that all requests “have to go through Jane (Taylor).”
“Sometimes we have to look at the files to make sure nothing is exempted,” said Taylor, who was paid $83,596.60 by the city in fiscal year 2011. When pressed what might be exempt in a restaurant complaint, she responded, “In a health code, I don’t know.”
Officials in Lebanon, Keene and Berlin all said similar records could be viewed without a written request, though all three recommended making an appointment.
Taylor said Claremont’s health complaints should have been kept in a binder and viewable on the spot.
“There shouldn’t be any reason you can’t look at them,” she said.
“I don’t mind you coming in and looking at them, but we don’t want an inconsistent policy,” Claremont City Manager Guy Santagate said yesterday. When asked whether he believes the city exhibits good customer service in meeting Right-to- Know requests, Santagate responded that he was “not on the witness stand.”
Even recently, Eagle Times staff have not always been required to file written requests for public information, however.
For instance, the paper did not file a written request to acquire City Councilor Roger Formidoni’s emails after Formidoni resigned in May following a heated email exchange with other city councilors. The city provided the Eagle Times with the emails hours after Formidoni resigned. (He later rescinded his resignation.)
“We want them (requests) to be consistent,” Santagate said. “We’re very concerned with privacy.”
But Keene is concerned with privacy as well and that city has produced a five-page directive to guide city employees in fielding Right-to-Know requests.
“We didn’t want to take the power away from the department of origin,” said Keene Records Manager William Dow, explaining why the directive was created and why he, not the city attorney, handles the bulk of 91-a requests. “I worked on it with the city attorney and it was approved by the city manager.”
“The public has the right to inspect, during regular business hours and at the appropriate department location, all public governmental records...” the directive reads. “The public does not have to offer a reason or demonstrate a need to inspect a record.”
Staffing shortage cited
Claremont officials, however, cited short-staffed offices and a high volume of requests in explaining why the city often responds minutes before the five-day window closes — as it has with each of the seven Eagle Times requests filed since mid-April.
City Finance Director Mary Walter told the paper via email yesterday that the city is “...down 17 percent of our full time workforce from 2001...” When asked which of the laid off positions would be involved with filling 91- a requests, or why the city’s workforce couldn’t adjust to a new workload after 10 years, Walter said that city offices are swamped with more work than in previous years due to increased state regulations.
“We get thousands of these requests,” Santagate said. “You’d better put that in your article. Thousands. The Valley News has never had a problem getting their information, the eTicker hasn’t had a problem.”
Taylor said yesterday that she was unaware of any Right-to- Know requests filed by either the Valley News or the eTicker website in recent months and she couldn’t provide the total number of requests the city has fielded. Taylor said the city kept a log of requests until her assistant was laid off in 2008.
Santagate and Taylor both said they would look into providing the Eagle Times with the requested health complaints. That hadn’t happened as of yesterday.
“We comply with the law,” said Santagate.“When you find a time we didn’t, feel free to get back to me.”
One thing is clear: Claremont stands out in requiring all requests be put in writing and running everything through the city lawyer.
Other towns treat requests for information very differently.
“We err on the side of being helpful,” said Franklin City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, who said her city receives few written requests, but a high number of walkins seeking information. “We get a lot of people who just come in and ask for things — we give it to them.”
“We get a lot of people just walking in,” said Somersworth Assessing Clerk Darcy Moore — who handled the paper’s abatement request. Moore added that the volume of written requests there is also low, although “foot traffic” at city hall is can be high.
Claremont officials, however, were less than impressed by the fact that other cities seem to put up fewer hurdles or provided quicker, smoother responses for information.
Santagate said routing everything through Taylor insulated the city from lawsuits.
“We’re just smarter than most cities,” Santagate said. “Manchester should follow us.”
Matt Camara can be reached at (603) 543-3100, ext. 103, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How they responded
The Eagle Times sent identical, written Right to Know Law requests to each of New Hampshire’s 13 cities and the towns of Charlestown and Newport asking for the previous tax year’s abatements, both approved and denied.
All responded in the legallymandated five business days and the paper downgraded its request to just an abatement list or spreadsheet. The paper followed up with a number of cities and both towns to receive those lists. Other cities that requested we visit in person to better determine what the paper needed or wanted were not visited.
The following were the results from each municipality:
• Berlin: City Manager Patrick MacQueen sent the Eagle Times a spreadsheet — at no cost — with property locations and whether the abatement was approved or denied.
• Concord: A deputy city solicitor clarified the request and referred it to the assessors who said there were 270 applications that could be viewed in person or copied. The request was dropped.
• Charlestown: Planning and Zoning Administrator David Edkins electronically provided — at no cost — the cover sheet to each abatement to give the Eagle Times a list of which were approved or denied.
• Claremont: City Solicitor Jane Taylor said the request would be delayed until after June 25. On that date, the Eagle Times was told the total cost for abatements would be up to $80 in labor. The paper agreed to the costs yesterday and is awaiting the abatements.
• Dover: The city’s legal counsel’s first response was followed by another response offering to mail the paper a spreadsheet of abatements for $1.50.
• Franklin: City Manager Elizabeth Dragon offered to email a spreadsheet when the assessor returned from vacation; the request was dropped.
• Keene: The city attorney asked that the request be mailed. The city then responded via U.S. Mail. The Eagle Times then canceled its request for abatement applications.
• Laconia: Offered to create a spreadsheet for an estimated $50. The paper did not ask that the request be fulfilled.
• Lebanon: The Eagle Times recieved a spreadsheet listing of abatements within four hours of submitting its request.
• Manchester: Invited Eagle Times staff to come view the abatements in person to better determine which documents were required.
• Nashua: Chief Assessor Angelo Marino told the Eagle Times that it would take 200 hours of labor at $25 per hour to fulfill the request. The paper did not fulfill the request.
• Newport: Assessing Assistant Kaara Gonyo faxed a hand-written abatement list with property locations, owners and whether or not the abatement was approved.
• Portsmouth: Offered to allow staff to view the documents in person.
• Rochester: Warned that fulfilling the request would be costly and emailed a list of abatements by parcel identification number. Recommended staff visit and view documents in person.
• Somersworth: Assessing Clerk Darcy Moore provided a spreadsheet at no cost.
— Matt Camara