Right to know advocates are often confronted with complaints from public administrators that RTKs requests are sometimes frivolous and a waste of time. I have seen this used often as an excuse to fight legislative changes to broaden the public’s right to know about their government. The following email exchange gives some insight into the politics of RTK requests and how often unfair and self-serving is the charge of “frivolousness.”
Danville Board of Selectman Chairman, Shawn O’Neil, made a Right to Know request of SAU 55 for information concerning the legal settlement with a Timberlane teacher, Mrs. Morse. The email exchanges associated with this request are reproduced below. For those wondering about our “translucent” district, the exchange makes interesting reading. Mr. O’Neil paid $7.50 to obtain the public information, information which should have been announced publicly at a school board meeting, and certainly made available to the board when the settlement was finalized.
Mr. O’Neil’s RTK request was far from frivolous as it was necessary to make public information public, but it should have been entirely unnecessary; nevertheless, the administration subtly accused Mr. O’Neil of frivolousness in mentioning another request he had made which was not collected. More on that at the end of the emails.
On Thu, May 12, 2016 at 6:58 AM, Shawn O’Neil <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Dear Dr. Metzler,
Please consider this email as an official request under the RTK law (RSA 91A) to obtain any and all information related to the Morse case up to the writing of this email. This would include but not limited to any settlement agreements, attorney costs, insurance company expenditures, School cost expended on this case. I will provide a USB Thumb drive, in its original packaging when you have the information available. Please contact me at this email address when ready.
Sent: Thursday, May 19, 2016 7:07 AM
To: Metzler, Earl
Cc: Belcher, Catherine; Stefanie Dube
Subject: Re: RTK – Morse Case
Dear Dr. Metzler,
Today is now 7 days from my initial request. Could you please respond to my RTK request?
Thank you for your recent reminder of the Central Office’s obligation to respond to your right-to-know request within 5 business days of the original request. In keeping within the timeframe allotted under RSA 91-A, please allow this email to serve as confirmation of receipt of your request for materials related to the Morse case. The information you requested will be available on or before August 1, 2016 due to the research and redaction process of certain materials (legal invoices). Furthermore, please be advised that these materials will be provided in hardcopy only as they are not maintained electronically. This office will contact you as soon as the redaction process is completed. For your convenience, I have attached the right-to-know procedures for costs associated with this request.
Sent: Sunday, May 22, 2016 7:01 AM
To: Belcher, Catherine; Metzler, Earl
Subject: Re: RTK – Morse Case
Dear Ms. Belcher and Dr. Metzler,
Thank you for your response. Please consider this response in receipt of your timeline for delivery for my request. I would like those documents delivered to me as they become available and do NOT need them to be delivered in one grouping. I am lead to believe that the settlement agreement can be easily produced. Please send me that document ASAP. A transparent (not translucent) school district is paramount in building trust. Please don’t stonewall or delay my request as I’m not afraid to take you to court if warranted, and I will have standing.
From: Belcher, Catherine <Catherine.Belcher@timberlane.net>
Date: Mon, May 23, 2016 at 9:54 AM
Subject: RE: RTK – Morse Case
To: Shawn O’Neil <email@example.com>
Cc: “Metzler, Earl” <Earl.Metzler@timberlane.net>
Thank you for your email clarifying your request to accept your right-to-know materials in pieces; we typically provide the materials in one single batch. Please note the settlement agreement and insurance expenditures associated with the Morse case are available for pick up at the Superintendent’s Office. There are a total of 15 pages. The cost for copies associated with this right-to-know requests is $.50 per page (these materials are not available in electronic format, nor were they generated from district computer programs), thus your total is $7.50. Kindly note our business hours of Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm. You will be contacted once the remaining item(s) become available.
On another RTK matter, please allow this email to also serve as a reminder of a previous request made by you on February 3, 2016 for copies of all emails regarding the consultant associated with the Sandown Withdrawal Committee. Those materials (70 pages) are still awaiting your pick up.
Mr. O’Neil’s previous RTK request concerned the district’s dealings with a consultant supposedly hired to do forensic accounting to determine Sandown’s buyout figure. The identity and extent of the work of this consultant was kept from the board and the public by Danville board member, Rob Collins, who was the individual interfacing with this consultant. Because this consultant became something of a mystery man, Mr. O’Neil resorted to Right to Know to find out what the consultant was being paid and who he was. As it happened, Mr. Collins succumbed to public pressure and spilled the beans. It seems the consultant was never paid, did very little work, and did not have a contract. He never considered himself hired.
Since this became public before the requested documents were available from the SAU, Mr. O’Neil had no reason to pay $35 responsive to his request. Clearly his request was not frivolous and could have been avoided with honesty from the get go.
The moral of the story is that honesty and openness avoid much wasted effort. Kudos to Danville Selectman and Chairman, Shawn O’Neil, for seeking answers when others wish to keep things under the rug.