Keene Sentinel Editorial: Monadnock officials owe district citizens some answers

Local government officials don’t want the public to know how taxpayer money is to be spent. It sounds familiar, but it’s not the Tuftonboro board of selectmen (Lloyd Wood, Bill Marcussen, Chip Albee) or the Budget Committee Chairman (Carla Lootens). This Keene Sentinal editorial from last month is about the Monadnock Regional School District.

Sentinel Editorial

Open, accessible, accountable and responsive: Monadnock officials owe district citizens some answers

Dec 12, 2017
Governing is difficult, tedious work, often not pleasant, but necessary. Those who give their time and energy to it are, generally, to be thanked. But there are those who revel in holding even a little power over their fellow citizens; in being on the inside, with information others lack; and in playing a disproportionate role in determining the course of our communities.

And sometimes, they get so caught up in that role that they forget why they’re really there, and that they serve at the will of the people.

“All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive.”

These words, from Article 8 of the N.H. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, are the underpinning of our state’s Right-to-Know Law. The purpose of the law is to hold public officials — both elected and appointed — accountable by allowing the public access to not only the results of government, but also the process. Thus, officials are bound, with few exceptions, to conduct official business in public, to answer questions posed by the public regarding their actions, and to make available any documents or records that would inform the public about the causes and effects of those actions.

It is the mechanism by which officials at every level of government — from the governor to state lawmakers to county commissioners to those elected or appointed to run our cities, towns and schools — must adhere to the principle that as the wording of the Constitutional passage above notes: All power resides in, and is derived from, the people.

The great danger of a government unfettered by such public scrutiny isn’t only that those in power might enrich themselves at the public’s expense or pass laws, rules and policies detrimental to the general citizenry (or specific subgroups) without opposition. Equally worrisome is that those in power might, if unchallenged, forget they serve at the public’s bidding and for the public’s benefit, not their own.

Which brings us to the Monadnock Regional School District’s latest flap — over Business Administrator Jane Fortson and the public’s right to information on her absence and, in particular, how the district’s finances are being handled during it.

Fortson, The Sentinel learned last week, was recently suspended, with pay. Inquiries to almost all of the district’s 13 board members and Superintendent Lisa Witte were rebuffed.

The Right-to-Know Law does give public bodies latitude in discussing certain personnel matters. Specifically, officials can refuse to reveal information that would potentially harm a person’s reputation, and they can refuse comment on disciplinary actions. Either might account for Witte and board members declining comment on why Fortson was suspended.

But those exemptions don’t extend to discussing the state of the district’s finances. So, when asked who is handling the business operations in Fortson’s absence — an absence that’s occurring in the midst of constructing the district’s 2018-19 budget that will hit every taxpayer’s wallet and affect every school child’s education — there is no excuse for not answering directly.

Yet board members have repeatedly done so, one even indicating she’s been told that to comment at all would leave her open to being removed from the board. And Witte has, after first declining comment, offered only a vague statement that acknowledges she’s ultimately responsible for the proper operation of all district functions “working with our competent and dedicated staff.” Well, we’d hope so. But that still doesn’t reveal who’s actually handling the $32.7 million in public money entrusted to the school administration.

One proper question for the board and superintendent surely is whether the suspension has to do with those public funds. Thus far, only school board member Neil Moriarty has been willing to comment on that, and only to say the suspension “has nothing to do with financial issues.”

More troubling still is the behavior of at least one board member, who gloatingly told a Sentinel reporter during last Tuesday’s meeting that she wouldn’t be able to find out anything, because the board had just voted to seal the minutes of its nonpublic session on the matter.

Such taunting, childish actions convey more than disdain for the reporter. They reveal a contempt for the public and its right to know how its money is being spent and how decisions regarding its children are being made.