CONCORD, N.H. — In a strong affirmation of New Hampshire's Right-to-Know Law, the state Supreme Court on Jan. 29 ordered an umbrella organization that represents municipalities and schools to release individual salary records to a firefighters' union tracking the organization's use of taxpayer money paid for health insurance.
The Local Government Center had argued some of the information wasn't covered by the law.
But Chief Justice John Broderick — writing for a unanimous court — disagreed and said public access gives direct insight into the operations of a public body through scrutiny of wages paid to particular job titles.
"Public scrutiny can expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice and favoritism," Broderick wrote in Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire v. Local Government Center, Inc. "Such scrutiny is necessary for the public to assess whether the LGC, which has a conceded status as a governmental entity subject to the Right-to-Know Law, is being properly and efficiently managed and for educating member municipalities regarding whether continued membership would be a wise expenditure of taxpayer money."
Broderick said knowing how a public body spends taxpayers' money in conducting public business "is essential to the transparency of government, the very purpose underlying the Right-to-Know Law."
The high court rejected the union's request for attorneys fees because of a lower court mistake. The court sent the issue back to the lower court. The union says it plans to again argue it is due the money.
The decision is the second by the high court in an eight-year battle between the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire and the center over documents sought by the union to determine if the center is diverting money collected for health insurance to other purposes. The center runs insurance pools for public employees, but also lobbies the Legislature on behalf of municipalities on issues such as retirement that can favor employers over employees like the firefighters.
The ruling orders the center to give the union individual salary and benefit records. The center had given the union a document with the gross salary amount of $6 million paid to 112 workers without identifying them individually or their functions.
Union President David Lang said after the ruling that the decision meant the public now can get any documents considered public under the Right-to-Know Law because the court ruled the center was a public entity funded by tax dollars.
"That is huge for the public," Lang said by telephone from Florida. "It's a very big win for the taxpayers."
The union now will go after more documents, including minutes of meetings, said Lang.
The center's lawyer told New Hampshire Public Radio last month that a fraction of the health premiums paid to the fund called the HealthTrust were used for initiatives not related to HealthTrust costs.
The union believes any surplus should be used to lower premiums or be returned to member municipalities and school districts. That way employees' wages won't be balanced against high health-care premiums that could be lower, the union argues.
"We are now more than ever interested in the final destination of that money," said Lang.
Maura Carroll, the center's interim executive director, said on Jan. 29 that the center would turn the records over to the union immediately. She denied that the center was diverting money.
"If they don't feel they can't properly follow the paper trail or money trail, we'll walk them through it again," said Carroll.
The center now has clear direction from the court that it is covered by the Right-to-Know Law, Carroll said.
"We understand the Right-to-Know Law so we'll comply," she said.
The state is investigating a complaint alleging that the center is using health insurance contributions for other purposes. Last month, a superior court judge ordered the center to turn over financial documents to the state.