Right-to-Know bill lacks substance

For a newspaper in the business of disseminating information to the public, it seems like any improvements to the Right to Know law would be seen as a boon. But in the case of House Bill 1591, which would require towns and school boards to post both meeting times and agendas 72 hours in advance instead of the 24 hours required now, it’s more of a mixed bag.

On the surface, this seems like a good idea. Residents would get more time to review the issues ahead of time, find out the details, and arrange to go to the meeting if it’s something they have an interest in. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable for boards to let the public know a few days in advance when they plan to meet, and what will be discussed.

These are all good ideas, and open and transparent government is always a positive thing. But the bill doesn’t offer any substantive changes. At least one town’s Select Board — in Wilton — has come out in opposition to the bill, saying that for boards that meet weekly, this bill creates an undue burden for too little gain.

The required advanced notice time doesn’t leave enough time for adequate agenda building, they say. While residents would have more time to review the issues, if the bill passes, the proposed change could also make it more difficult for concerned residents who want to meet with town and school boards to make it on the agenda in a timely manner.

Perhaps there is a middle ground that can be reached that can satisfy both town boards and concerned residents. Instead of 72 hours, 48 might be sufficient to give residents time to acquaint themselves with the issues, without putting undue pressure on boards — which are after all made up of volunteers — to set their agendas too far in advance. Then again, perhaps this is the wrong battle to fight in the Right-to-Know arena.

Originally, House Bill 1591 had an entirely different purpose: to create a Right-to-Know Grievance Commission, made up of 10 citizens to hear and rule on areas of Right-to-Know law. That idea, unlike an extra 48 hours to view the agenda, could have a real overarching impact and give the Right-to-Know law some teeth in providing a resource for those who champion it. That’s the kind of change our representatives should put their backing behind.

If we’re going to make a change to Right-to-Know law, let it be a change that has real impact. Extra time to view the agenda would be nice. A legislative resource for citizens to bring their Right-to-Know cases to, without having to resort to a potentially expensive court process, would be invaluable.

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