Quasi-governmental entities subject to RSA 91-A

Professional Firefighters of N.H. v. Local Government Center, Inc.
Professional Firefighters of N.H. v. Local Government Center, Inc.
No. 2009-215
Friday, January 29, 2010

In this opinion, the Court interpreted the scope of RSA Chapter 91-A, New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law. The case involved the difficult and unresolved issue of the application of the law to quasi-governmental bodies.

The LGC is a nonprofit organization governed by an active board of directors of municipal, school and county representatives including labor, management and elected officials. Its purpose is to promote good municipal government and thereby promote the growth and prosperity of cities, towns and village districts. The plaintiffs in this case sought information under RSA Chapter 91-A regarding employee names and salaries.

The Court noted that some entities are not easily characterized as solely private or entirely public, and not all organizations that work for or with the government are subject to the Right to Know Law. Given the variety of organizational arrangements that may exist, each different arrangement must be examined anew in its own context. In an earlier decision, the Court had found it significant that one LGC subsidiary, LGC HealthTrust, performed an essential government function. Prof’l Firefighters of N.H. v. HealthTrust, 151 N.H. 501 (2004). The present case involved two different LGC subsidiaries, New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) and LGC Real Estate, which the Court acknowledged performed functions that could be performed by a private entity rather than a governmental entity.

Nevertheless, the Court concluded that the subsidiaries were quasi-governmental entities subject to RSA 91-A, noting that LGC members are all political subdivisions and that the organization is managed by officials of political subdivisions. While the plaintiffs were entitled to the salary information they had requested, the Court vacated the trial court’s order of attorney fees to the plaintiffs.

Attorney fees may be awarded to a plaintiff when litigation was necessary to obtain requested information and the public body knew or should have known that the information was public. RSA 91-A:8. In this case, the Court found that the trial court had awarded attorney fees to the plaintiffs based on a mistaken understanding of LGC’s reasons for not providing salary information when originally requested.

The Right to Know Law calls for a balancing of interests. Addressing the thorny question of the law’s applicability to quasi-governmental entities, the Court has tipped this balance toward more disclosure for the many such entities in the state. The framework and process outlined in the law offer a known and tested means for disclosure of materials and information and will provide guidance for all quasi-governmental bodies.