A Keene State College journalism professor has filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging staff improperly denied right-to-know requests filed by several students.
Marianne Salcetti teaches a public affairs reporting class that tasks students with filing requests for public information under New Hampshire’s right-to-know law, RSA 91-A.
The requests involved information about city health inspections of restaurants, police use of force, sexual-assault charges and citations related to underage drinking.
City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said in an interview Thursday that the city fulfilled requests from many students in the class. But, she said, it had to deny requests that would have required staff “research” to produce new reports. And one request, meanwhile, would have been granted if the student agreed to pay the significant printing costs it entailed, which she declined to do.
“Some of the information was not in the format they were looking for; therefore, it wasn’t available,” Dragon said. “And I think that they’re just unhappy with that answer.”
New Hampshire’s right-to-know law gives any citizen “the right to inspect all governmental records,” save those that fall into categories the law specifically exempts from disclosure.
The law defines “records” broadly, as “any information created, accepted, or obtained by, or on behalf of” a public body or agency. It encompasses records in paper, electronic “or other physical form.”
But under the law, public agencies are not obligated to “compile, cross-reference, or assemble information into a form in which it is not already kept or reported” and can charge for the cost of producing copies.
Salcetti, in a statement attached to her complaint, says the city is dodging disclosure requirements by claiming “that the information is not in document form, that the information is data and that data is not a government document.”
Such a classification, Salcetti writes, “allows this public information to be inaccessible and therefore hidden from the public’s view.” Because of the “obstacles” her students encountered, she writes, “my ability to teach students how to analyze documents and then produce news stories in the public interest was drastically impaired.”
As of this morning, the city had yet to submit an answer to Salcetti’s complaint, which was filed Monday in Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 13 at 1:30 p.m.
The suit involves right-to-know requests made by five students. The requests asked for information over a period of several years, according to student statements submitted as part of Salcetti’s court filing and copies of the requests reviewed by The Sentinel. Each of those requests was denied in whole or in part, or went unfulfilled because the student declined to bear a significant cost.
Alex Fleming, 22, a senior majoring in journalism, said he was interested in how many citations the Keene Police Department issues for laws related to underage drinking and how much money the city of Keene pulls in from the resulting fines. He said he also wanted to compare those statistics to other municipalities, to see which enforced those laws most aggressively.
In September, Fleming requested access to “police citations involving infractions pertaining to” state laws dealing with minors in possession of alcohol and party hosts’ liability for underage alcohol and drug use between 2012 and 2016, according to emails he provided to The Sentinel.
The following month, William S. Dow, the assistant city clerk, denied the request via email, saying the city “has determined that there is no existing governmental record listing all citations pertaining to violations” of the two laws between those years.
In response to a follow-up email from Fleming asking why the requested records did not exist, Dow wrote that “Keene Police Department staff have reviewed the record systems containing governmental records in their possession for a report” containing the citations, and found that “the requested governmental record does not exist.”
“It has been further determined,” Dow wrote, “that in order to satisfy this request, it is required to compile various recorded information into a form that it is not already maintained or kept by the department,” which the law does not require the city to do.
Reached by phone this morning, Dow declined to comment and referred questions about the case to the city manager’s office.
Two students, Colby Dudal and Meridith King, wanted more details about health inspections the city conducted on local eateries — including what violations the city dinged them for — and filed separate, complementary requests.
“If anyone is going to a restaurant, I think it’s important to not only know if it passed or failed, but the reason why,” Dudal, 20, a junior journalism major, said in an interview Thursday.
According to Dudal and King, city officials initially said copies of the requested records could be produced at a per-page charge, but subsequently told the students that the information they wanted existed only in a database — not in documents that could be viewed.
According to a statement written by Dudal and included in the court filing, Corinne Marcou, an administrative assistant for the Code Enforcement Department, wrote in an October email, “After much conversations with William Dow and our City Attorney, the information from our data system isn’t a government document and as there is no report currently created with this specific request criteria, the City isn’t obligated to create one.”
King, 21, a senior public relations and journalism major, then filed a new request asking for email correspondence between restaurants and the city. Dragon responded that the city had conducted approximately 800 to 1,000 inspections in the past three years. The cost of retrieving and printing those documents could be around $300, which the city would bill to King.
King declined. “That obviously is out of most college students budgets to acquire so called ‘public knowledge,’ ” she wrote in an email to The Sentinel.
On Thursday, Dragon said the city recently converted to a new database system for health-inspection data, which complicates public access.
“I did check with the fourth floor” — where the code enforcement offices are — “to see if there was a way for us to let a student just sit at the computer,” she said. But that was not possible due to the confidential information included in the database, she said.
Dragon said city staff is looking for a way to make that information accessible going forward.
In the meantime, she said, the students could have accessed the reports that had been emailed, had they been willing to reimburse the city for that cost.
Grace Pecci, 21, a senior journalism major, requested any documents within the Keene Police Department, the city attorney’s office or the city manager’s office “regarding any and all citizen complaints, logs, calls, and emails regarding charges of excessive police force and/ or police brutality” between August 2012 and September 2017, according to a copy of the request she provided to The Sentinel.
Pecci also asked for a list of every Keene police officer “reprimanded for using excessive force and or brutality” during that time.
In an email response sent Nov. 21, Dow wrote that police officer names and formal complaints filed through the department’s “internal investigations process” are exempt from disclosure, citing a provision of RSA 91-A that allows “internal personnel practices,” among other records, to remain confidential.
The only document that will be made available to Pecci under her request, according to Dow’s email, is “a report by the former Keene Police Chief, Kenneth Meola, which contains statistical summaries of citizen complaints of brutality/excessive (force) by police officers for the years requested and this record contains a total of 18 pages.” Meola retired in May 2015.
In an interview Thursday, Pecci expressed frustration with aspects of the right-to-know process, but described it as an important learning experience. Now that she knows how to request public records, she said, “It makes me really interested to see what else is out there.”
A fifth student, Abbygail Vasas, requested “all charges” of two forms of sexual assault between 2013 and 2017 and a copy of the police department’s “protocol for sexual assault incidents,” according to a written statement included in the court filing.
Though she was given access to the protocol, Vasas writes, a document drawn up by a state commission, Dow turned down the first part of her request.
According to Vasas, Dow wrote in an email that the police department logs “incidents and arrests” in “various recordkeeping systems” and has no “governmental record” listing all the charges she mentioned.
Vasas did not immediately return a message asking for comment Thursday night.
For Salcetti, ending a public-interest reporting class in Superior Court is a strange turn of events. She said in an interview Thursday that she had told her class, “Well, I had wanted to take you to a courtroom as part of this course. I just didn’t think it would be about us.”