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Jim Kenyon: A costly request strains right-to-know rationale in Lebanon

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/4/2022 12:14:03 AM
Modified: 12/4/2022 12:13:40 AM

As Lebanon’s city manager for nearly five years, Shaun Mulholland is accustomed to fielding requests from the public for information under New Hampshire’s right-to-know law.

Most of it is basic stuff. Journalists asking for the employees’ salaries and how long they’ve worked for the city. Law firms and businesses seeking documents pertaining to city contracts and policies.

A couple of months ago, someone not named Elon Musk requested documents about the city’s space program.

“That was an easy one to answer,” Mulholland said.

But if the U.S. Office of Spaceports, established in 2018 by the Trump administration, is ever looking for new rocket launch sites, I’m sure Lebanon’s airport could use the business.

Mulholland told me 99% of the public records requests that come across his desk are “reasonable” and don’t require a lot of staff time to fulfill.

Then there’s the request that came in the day before Thanksgiving from Jeanne Robillard, CEO of Tri-County Community Action. The nonprofit, based in Berlin, N.H., has received almost $20 million in federal COVID-19 funds since early 2021 to help ease homelessness in the state’s three most northern counties — Grafton, Carroll and Coos.

In her letter to Muholland, Robillard requested copies of all emails and other governmental records sent to the city’s human services department between Nov. 1, 2021 and Nov. 23, 2022.

At last Monday’s City Council meeting, Mulholland informed his bosses that satisfying the request could cost Lebanon taxpayers roughly $20,000.

And that was before the city’s cyber services director conducted an electronic search that showed Tri-County’s request covered more than 15,000 emails alone. The city is still trying to get a handle on how many other documents it must come up with.

“My initial cost estimate I provided the council on Monday night was off considerably,” Mulholland emailed me on Wednesday. He’s now expecting the cost to run between $70,000 and $80,000.

Why so much?

Since the right-to-know law requires requests be satisfied expeditiously, Mulholland is looking at hiring additional staff to go through the emails and other documents. The final price tag could be “smaller or larger when we determine the number of documents other than email that would have to be searched by a human being and in many cases heavily redacted to protect welfare clients’ identities” and other personal information, he said.

Robillard didn’t indicate why she wants the information or what she intends to do with it. Mulholland has his suspicions. “It’s clearly meant to bog us down and cost us money,” he said. (The town of Conway received a similar request the same day.)

I tried to ask Robillard about her reasons, but she declined to talk with me last week.

Robillard is seeking all email exchanges between Lebanon Human Services Director Lynne Goodwin and staff members at Listen, the nonprofit social services organization that works with the city to help needy residents.

She’s also demanding email exchanges that Goodwin had with Valley News staff writer Nora Doyle-Burr and with me.

Don’t get me wrong. The state’s right-to-know law is a valuable tool in the never-ending battle to hold public officials accountable. Without the law, government transparency — particularly in cases of alleged police misconduct — would be nearly nonexistent.

But Tri-County’s request is hardly a rallying cry for greater public access to the workings of local government. Instead it strikes me as a not-so-veiled attempt to intimidate Goodwin, who has been critical of Tri-County’s spending habits and its efforts to find long-term solutions to curb homelessness.

Tri-County has used millions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars to pay for people to stay in motel rooms month after month. Meanwhile, the nonprofit, which has more than 250 employees, has done little in Grafton County to find permanent housing or provide support services for residents living in motels.

The city and Listen have “tried to work cooperatively” with Tri-County, but a “partnership hasn’t materialized,” Goodwin told me in an interview for an October column that pointed out some of Tri-County’s shortcomings.

I might find Robillard’s public records request more palatable if Tri-County’s own track record on transparency wasn’t so lacking.

Tri-County refuses to divulge how much it’s pocketed in administrative fees for disbursing $18.3 million through the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP, for short.

It’s also been secretive about how much of the money has gone to motels and hotels. It’s difficult to say for sure, but state records show that as much as $8.4 million (46%) of the $18.3 million has been spent on temporary lodging — by far the most in any of New Hampshire’s 10 counties.

Last month, the state’s 13 mayors, led by Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara, persuaded Gov. Chris Sununu and the Executive Council to devote an additional $20 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for sheltering people at risk of homelessness through the spring.

But it’s only a stopgap, McNamara stressed. He’d like to see something along the lines of what Twin Pines Housing Trust is looking to do in Hartford. The affordable housing nonprofit wants to turn a shuttered hotel into a multifamily apartment building with 40 units.

For that to happen, Tri-County would likely have a role. “We’re supposed to be partners, working together to use this federal money in ways that are in everyone’s best interests,” Mulholland said.

Since Monday’s council meeting, Mulholland and Robillard have agreed to meet this Friday. Mulholland hopes to persuade Robillard to “reduce the volume” of her request.

Better yet, she could drop it altogether.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.


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