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N.H. House rethinks ‘unreasonable’ public records fee

Under current law, public agencies can charge for the actual cost of producing physical copies of the documents requested

CONCORD, N.H. — The cost to request a trove of public records under New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law might not skyrocket after all.

State representatives backtracked Thursday on House Bill 1002, rethinking their prior approval of the still-pending proposal, which would allow state and local governments to charge a $25-per-hour fee for requests that take more than 10 hours to fulfill.

“Many representatives that I heard from did not understand the full scope of the impact and potential consequences their vote on HB 1002 would have on their communities,” said Representative Kelley L. Potenza, a Republican from Rochester.

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The bill passed the House last week with a 193-179 vote, but then Republican Representative Lisa Smart of Meredith moved for reconsideration, urging her colleagues to take a closer look at the proposal. With a 195-183 vote on Thursday, the House obliged. Members ultimately decided to send HB 1002 back to the House Judiciary Committee, with a few potential amendments.

Under current law, public agencies can charge for the actual cost of producing physical copies of the documents requested. Proponents of HB 1002 said adding the fee would be a tool to handle burdensome and time-consuming requests. But government transparency advocates opposed the bill, contending the change would make it prohibitively more expensive to access public records.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said the bill would have diminished the state’s current law and opened pathways for government agencies to abuse and obstruct the process.

“Forcing people to pay unreasonable fees for document requests decreases government accountability and transparency,” he said, lauding the House’s decision on Thursday as “a positive step.”

This wasn’t the first time a motion for reconsideration brought a bill back before the House on a subsequent session day this year, and it won’t be the last. With the 400-member chamber near-evenly divided between the parties, even minor shifts in attendance from one session day to the next could affect the outcome of individual votes.

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Democratic Representative Michael D. Cahill of Newmarket unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to reconsider their approval of House Bill 396, which would allow public and private entities statewide to differentiate on the basis of “biological sex” in bathrooms, locker rooms, athletic events, and detention facilities.

Republican Representative Ross Berry of Manchester moved Thursday for reconsideration of House Bill 1396, after representatives voted 195-182 to kill the bill. The measure would prohibit municipal inspections of owner-occupied units within residential structures that have four or fewer units.

The House is slated to act on legislation after Governor Chris Sununu’s State of the State Address on Thursday, Feb. 15.


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Steven Porter can be reached at steven.porter@globe.com. Follow him @reporterporter. Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.