"Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.
Alexander Hamilton

Monday, December 12, 2016

What is Going on in Tuftonboro? Town Files Complaint in Superior Court in Response to Right to Know Request

There is a right to know dust up between the Tuftonboro BoS and two residents, Max Ledoux and Bob McWhirter and it centers around emails. It's a bit complicated.

McWhirter's request was for email correspondence received by or sent to selectmen or office administrators between Jan. 1 and Oct. 17 2016, and  Budget Committee Chairman Carla Looten's email correspondence with the town from Dec. 1, 2015 to Nov. 15, 2016.
Ledoux's request was for any and all emails from/to Granite State News reporter Elissa Paquette , the editor of the paper,Thomas Beeler  and the Tuftonboro office manager from Jan. 1 to Nov. 17 2016.
I am not aware of why these requests were made or what specifically they were seeking. The RTK law does not require a reason for any request.
There were 18 emails in total that were found for Ledoux's request. Some that did not need redaction were sent electronically to Ledoux. There were 26 pages that were printed and manually redacted. Per Tuftonboro town policy, they charge a fee of 25 cents per page for copies, so a charge of $6.50 was made to provide the copies. Therein lies the problem. Ledoux didn't ask for copies and only requested to inspect the emails.
The BoS have determined that the emails need to be reviewed to remove exempt information, and to assure that they are free of personal information. In order to safely redact the emails , they had to be printed, blacked out and then photo copied to assure that the wording redacted could not be deciphered. Hence the need per the town for the 26 photocopies and the 25 cent per page charge. All told, including McWhirter's request, there are approximately 11,000 pages. Ledoux argued at a recent BoS meeting that Adobe Acrobat  could electronically redact the information making it impossible to be recreated.
Max Ledoux has also argued that he should not have to pay for copies he did not request, and that the BoS are using this cost to illegally charge Bob McWhirter an exorbitant amount of money. The BoS position is that they are trying to comply with the request, but it is very time consuming and labor intensive and decided to turn the matter and process over to town counsel Richard Sager.

That gets us to the Superior Court complaint. On December 7th, attorney Sager filed a complaint in Superior Court against Max Ledoux and Bob McWhirter , out of concern that the town would be sued for the 25 cent per page charge as they continue to refuse to provide the redacted pages for free. In essence, Tuftonboro is seeking the courts interpretation of how the town should proceed and how to respond with the Right to Know law to the citizens requests.
On the Tuftonboro Free Speech Forum, Ledoux posted the complaint , with the preface Are you interested in how our beautiful town is run? A word of caution: don't open your mouth or the selectmen will drag you into court." Some on the forum saw it a retaliation and at least one other felt that it was reasonable to charge 25 cents a page  as it " prevents someone from running up a huge paper bill for the town by requesting thousands of pages." Per the complaint, the cost using the town's methodology could be as high as $12,800 not including the cost for legal review. 
Attorney Sager commented on the forum that he expects the town to comply with whatever the court orders. 
My take on this is that it is breaking new ground in terms of governmental records as they pertain to the RTK law. There is a cost in both staff time and materials, and it is not unreasonable, being a selectman and taxpayer, to be concerned about that. On the other hand, legal requests were made and the RTK law requires that they be fulfilled. How to do that is the conundrum and it is not quite as simple and straightforward as Max Ledoux would seem to suggest. Will they set a precedent for future requests? Can a town charge for copies of printouts or even the printouts themselves of emails to allow for public inspection?  I don't see that as retaliation. How the court handles this complaint will set a legal precedent, and I for one await the decision.
All that being said, there is apparently a lot going on beneath the surface in Tuftonboro which seems to have precipitated the email requests. Distrust, anger, and accusations make a working relationship between concerned citizens and the BoS very difficult. Both sides need to lighten up a bit and not make the assumption that the other is always out to get them.


Fred Van Magness said...

This brings up an interesting comment and observation. A few weeks ago I wanted to get a copy of material that was discussed at a BOS meeting. I went to town hall and requested the data and had no problem getting it. However, it cost me $8 for 8 pages or $1 per page (4 times what Tuftonboro charges...they must get cheap paper ??). Anyway, I paid for the copies and was glad to have them. However, it brings up a point of transparency. I have found that nothing that is discussed at BOS meeting is ever provided on line in advance. Things like the contents of the Consent and Signature file are not available on line and most likely not available at meetings for the general public.How could anyone even question an item without seeing the same documents that the boards are looking at? In addition, as a resident, it seems to me that I should be able to get a copy or review actual documents discussed at a BOS meeting without having to pay for them. I think it is time for the town to implement a policy that publishes a full copy of BOS informational packets, including handouts, two days before the meeting where these items are to be discussed. Same should be true for the School Committee. Packets should also be available at the meetings. As another example, in watching the tapes of the recent budget sessions, I could not find any copies on line of the budgets being discussed. Just some thoughts as the town looks at transparency.

Moultonboro Blogger said...

Following is Bob McWhirter's RTK request made on 10/17/16:

"Please provide in electronic format the following information for the period March 1, 2016 to October 17, 2016.

All email correspondence to and from the
following Town of Tuftonboro accounts.

1. carolyn.sundquist@tuftonboro.org
2. tuftonboroselectmen@tuftonboro.org
3. adminasst@tuftonboro.org
4. bill.marcussen@tuftonboro.org
5. lloydwood@tuftonboro.org

Please advise if you need further information to process my request and let me know a time table on when to expect the information."

Josh Bartlett said...

It sounds to me as if the Tuftonboro BoS has not thought this through. I respectfully suggest that there is no reason why the email cannot be copied to another format, such as MS Word, and then reviewed and redacted as appropriate without having to print pages. The copies could then easily be certified that they are exact copies except for the redactions.

The public does indeed have a right to know the information after the personnel or other privileged information is deleted. Placing extraordinary conditions or costs often will be viewed as an attempt to hide something.