NEFAC logo 11-11The NEFAC Report
New England's monthly right-to-know dispatch
March 2012 
Prepared by the New England First Amendment Coalition in partnership with Northeastern University    
   The monthly NEFAC Report monitors print and online coverage of public access issues in the six-state region.  Visit our Website  for the NEFAC blog, media updates from around New England, guides to the states' right-to-know laws, legal contacts and more.
1692 "witch" indictment could be a public document
   SALEM, Mass - A rare manuscript from the Salem Witch Trials goes on sale tomorrow at a New York auction house.
   The original court indictment of Margaret Scott, an elderly Rowley woman and one of the last people hanged during the 1692 witch hysteria, is part of a large private collection of historical documents being sold at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City.
   The pre-auction estimate is $25,000 to $35,000.
   "I think the estimate is way low," said Richard Trask, the Danvers town archivist and a leading expert on the witch trials.   Read more                             

- Tom Dalton, The Salem (Mass.) News


Police release dashboard video of car-tanker collision
   SOUTHINGTON, Conn - State police released cruiser video Wednesday showing a December incident in which a Naugatuck man fleeing authorities collided with a fuel tanker truck, causing a large fire and power outages in the area.
   The video, obtained through a Record-Journal Freedom of Information request, shows a state police cruiser chasing the fleeing SUV down Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike, beginning near Hemlock Hills RV. The pursuit lasts less than two minutes before the SUV crashes into a tanker truck filled with 8,600 gallons of fuel at the intersection of Old Turnpike Road.
   Police had been looking for suspect Brian Miele, 43, of Naugatuck on suspicion that he had stolen an SUV in earlier in the day on Dec. 27, 2011.   Read more. Watch video.

- Richie Rathsack, The Record-Journal, Meriden, Conn. 


Judge orders Planned Parenthood to open records on grant
   CONCORD, N.H. - A federal judge on Friday ordered the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to release all public records pertaining to a $1 million federal grant that was awarded to six Planned Parenthood clinics, including one in Exeter.
   The order by Judge Paul Barbadoro is in response to a lawsuit filed by New Hampshire Right To Life, which alleges the $1 million in public money was awarded to Planned Parenthood via a "no-bid contract" and over the objections of the governor's Executive Council.
   The federal lawsuit also alleges the DHHS failed to produce public records and is illegally withholding documents, both in violation of the federal Freedom of Information Act.  Read more 

- Elizabeth Dinan, Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald


"Gadflies" keep officials buzzing
    They often refer to themselves as watchdogs, keeping an eye on local government to make sure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely and the needs of the community are being met.
Elected officials often have another name for them: gadflies -- people who stimulate and annoy with persistent criticism.
   Most area cities and towns have at least one resident who has a better attendance record at public meetings than the officials required to be there. Often they are greeted with eye-rolls and grimaces when they approach the podium, but what they can't be is dismissed. They say they can point to many examples of their effectiveness in changing public policy.  Read more

- Frank Juliano, Connecticut Post, Bridgeport, Conn.   


Retirement plan quirk keeps some NH town pensions secret
   AMHERST, N.H. - Not all workers retired from public jobs are created equal.
   After last fall's ruling by the state Supreme Court making the names and amounts of the top pensioners in the state available to the public, only a select few employees get to keep secret how much of their retirement taxpayers are paying.
   Locally, only Amherst is trying to keep their publicly funded retirement packages blocked from public scrutiny. That's because of a quirk in the way Amherst contributes to many of its employees' retirement accounts.  Read more

 Joseph Cote, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.    


Culture of government secrecy has embarrassed MA
   Indictments tied to the Probation Department jobs scandal are soon expected to rattle Beacon Hill to the core and if there was ever a chance for sweeping change to rules that allow state government to conduct business in secret, this is it.
   The state's weak public records statutes were a key factor in officials' ability to hide what may well be the most massive corruption case in Massachusetts history; one in which campaign contributions and other favors fed a patronage scam that may end up tainting judges, mayors, city councilors, prosecutors and other members of the executive branch.
   The lack of transparency also created an environment for the last three House speakers to conduct business in ways that led to their felony convictions, the most recent being Sal DiMasi, who is now in federal prison for his role in a contract-fixing scam. Read more

- The Enterprise, Brockton, Mass.   


"FOI Guy" urges people to make use of public access laws
   COLCHESTER, Conn. - James McNair, a former Colchester school board member, calls himself "the FOI guy."
   McNair said it's important for residents to take advantage of the Freedom of Information laws, especially because things can fall by the wayside if public employees and elected officials don't know they're being watched.
"A lot of people don't know what to ask for, and a lot of people aren't patient," he said. "A lot of people won't ask if they don't see a reason to ask."  Read more

- Kala Kachmar, Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin   


VT lawmakers need to keep public meetings open
  When lawmakers return from their town meeting break this week, high on their list of priorities must be strengthening the power of the public to challenge government bodies that attempt to meet in secret.
   Conducting government business before the people - town meeting being a prime example - is the essence of transparency. Without transparency, there is no accountability.
   The first step to ensuring compliance with open meeting laws is to make sure government faces significant consequence for violations. With no real consequences, officials have nothing to lose by closing meetings on the slimmest of pretexts.  Read more

- The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press    


MA gambling chairman: Open meetings could be problem
  Citing the unique nature of the state's still-developing full-time Gaming Commission, Chairman Stephen Crosby says he is concerned that the state's open meeting law could make it difficult for the panel to do its job.
   Under the state's open meeting law, if a majority of members of a public body gather to discuss business, that constitutes a meeting and requires 48 hours public notice. Given the full-time nature of the commission, unlike local boards of selectmen or city councils, Crosby said simply chatting about work in the office could be considered a public meeting.
  "We've just barely begun to think about it. We will be making such a commitment to transparency we don't want the first thing to happen out of the box is that we're in violation of open meeting law so we have to find a way to operate within the spirit of the law. It's going to be a little complicated," Crosby told the News Service.  Read more

- The Associated Press    


Editorial comment, Boston Herald  


   The chairman of the new state Gaming Commission is concerned that requirements of the state's open meeting law might cramp the commission's style as it works to implement the new casino gambling law. To which we say, too bad.   Read more   

No accountability on S. Burlington traffic stop pay out
  South Burlington agreed to pay $10,000 to settle a Shelburne woman's complaint stemming from a traffic stop by a city police officer, but residents still are denied access to key public documents involved in the case.
   That means the city paid out money -- covered by insurance -- without revealing to the public evidence that could show that the payment authorized on behalf of residents was justified.
   Where is the accountability?
   The unreleased documents are records of the traffic stop including video and dispatch logs. The city first denied they were public records, but later reversed itself. Still, South Burlington claims an exemption for "records which are relevant to litigation to which the public agency is a party."  Read more

- The Burlington Free Press    


VT high court says police logs can be public records
  The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday that police dispatch logs are not exempt from the state's public records act.
   Stephen Bain, who was convicted of possessing stolen property and marijuana in 2005, had sued to get dispatch and unit logs from Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark. The lower court had dismissed the suit, saying the records were exempt from disclosure because they dealt with "the detection and investigation of a crime."
   But the Supreme Court on Friday reversed that decision and sent the case back to Windham Superior Court in Newfane.
   "We cannot assume, consistent with the purpose of the PRA, that simply because the records at issue were generated by a law enforcement agency, they necessarily are records 'dealing with the detection and investigation of a crime,'" the court said in its unanimous decision.  Read more

-Lisa Rathke, The Associated Press    


Bill shielding info on some CT employees goes to governor
  The Senate sent a bill that attempts to fix the state's Freedom of Information laws to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy Wednesday afternoon.
   By a vote of 34-0, the Senate wasted little time debating the measure, which passed the House last week by a vote of 120-11.
   Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, said the bill attempts to strike a balance between the public's right to know and the safety of police, correction officers, and other protected classes who could be harmed if their addresses are made public.
   The bill is a response to a Supreme Court decision, which found state and local officials could be held liable if they accidentally released the names and addresses of judges, correction officers, police officers, and other protected classes to the public.   Read more                           

-Christine Stuart, CT NewsJunkie     


What is ME governor trying to hide?
  What is the governor hiding? And why?
   This afternoon, the Legislature's Judiciary Committee will work on L.D. 1805, a bill that would help the governor hide even more of his activities.
   The session will be at 2 p.m. in room 438 at the State House.
   I spoke against this bill at a press conference last week along with Mike Dowd, president of the Maine Press Association; Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Broadcasters Association and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition; Mal Leary, the veteran State House news reporter; Jim Henderson, retired state archivist; Shenna Bellows of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, and others.
   As a full-time writer these days, a founding member of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate member of the Maine Press Association, L.D. 1805 alarms me. It would allow the governor and any employee in his office to keep secret their work on a host of issues and proposals, reports, and more.

- George Smith, Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine 


More on this topic:  

LePage proposal an affront to Maine tradition - Bangor Daily News 

Public access to governor's office a basic right - The Forecaster 

AG's office finds ways to keep facts from the NH public
  New Hampshire's government is accountable to the citizens it serves. That is clearly stated in the state constitution; the right to know law reinforces the message.
   Unfortunately, the Attorney General's office regularly shows disrespect for this key tenet of open government. Year after year, its lawyers find new ways to argue that the right to know is actually an Official Secrets Act. Look at their recent actions.
   Last Friday, Nicole R. LeBlanc was arrested for first degree murder. She is charged with the January shooting of Richard Mannion in Sandown. The state's news release credited several law enforcement agencies but revealed nothing about the suspect except her age. No hometown, no photo, no details on her arrest or where she was being held.  Read more

-  New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester, N.H.  


Back to FOI school for Stonington officials  
   STONINGTON, Conn.- The state Freedom of Information Commission ordered the town on Wednesday to release a union grievance filed by Zoning Enforcement Officer Joe Larkin and to undergo educational training to become familiar with the requirements of the state's freedom of information law.
   The commission voted unanimously to uphold a complaint by The Day which had requested a copy of the grievance Larkin filed last spring after the town cut his job from full time to part time. The town refused to release the grievance even though previous FOI decisions had found that such grievances are public documents and must be released.
The town did not send a representative to Tuesday's commission meeting in Hartford during which the commission heard comments on the case before issuing its decision.  Read more

- Joe Wojtas, The Day, New London, Conn. 


 Phone records in Murray car crash can remain secret  
   The governor's office has stubbornly refused to release itemized cellphone records for Lt. Gov. Tim Murray from the time of his bizarre single-car crash back in November (or for any other period, for that matter), and after appeals by media outlets including the Herald the state Public Records Division has now determined that the governor's office can't be compelled to produce them. And with that the administration with the unprecedented commitment to transparency has called an end to the discussion.
   But even if the records aren't forthcoming the taxpayers have learned a few useful things from this process. For example, that Patrick's team, beginning when he took office in 2007, told its cellphone provider that itemized bills were no longer necessary. A spokeswoman said because nearly 50 members of the Executive Office staff use BlackBerry phones for work (oh that's all), summary invoices allowed the administration to achieve "administrative efficiencies." 
   But the price of slimmer file folders is an appalling lack of information on how taxpayer dollars are being spent. Murray's call records aside, if there is a member of Patrick's staff using his cellphone to conduct campaign activities, for example, the public would be none the wiser.   Read more

- Boston Herald  



Salaries of NH delegation's staff hard to come by
   If you're looking for signs of bipartisan unanimity in a fractured Congress, just ask to see the salaries of congressional staffers.
   Since December, The Telegraph has repeatedly requested a list of salaries of the roughly 100 people working for New Hampshire's two U.S. senators and two congressmen.
   Whether dealing with Republicans or Democrats, in the House or Senate, the response has been the same: almost complete silence, including a total of 14 unreturned phone calls to the four offices in a single week.
Read more      

-David Brooks and Shannon Young, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H. 


Burned out saloon argues for access to fire probe documents
   CONCORD, N.H. - The lawyer representing the Wide Open Saloon at Weirs Beach told the N.H. Supreme Court yesterday that his client should have access to documents gathered by the state fire marshal gathered during its investigation of the Sept. 10 fire that gutted the place.
   He said the Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Robert McNamara ruled erroneously when he said the information gathered about the fire was, in part, not subject to provisions of the N.H. Right-to-Know Law and its federal counterpart the Freedom of Information Act.
  "How could an arson investigation not be law enforcement?" asked Justice Robert J. Lynn, who also wanted to know what would be the role of the fire marshal if not to investigate fires and arson. Read more

- Gail Ober, The Laconia (N.H.) Daily Sun


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