N.H. school board ordered to turn over sealed meeting minutes

Investigator's report can stay private, judge rules

NEW HAMPSHIRE — A district’s school board must make public the minutes of a private board meeting about possible misuse of funds, a state judge has ruled.

The New Hampshire Union Leader sued the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District for the minutes of the meeting from April 24, in which the members discussed an investigation into the possible misuse of district funds, according to the judge’s ruling.

The Union Leader also sued for a report by attorney Dean Eggert, an independent investigator, who had been hired by the school district to look into former Superintendent Trevor Ebel’s use of a district-provided credit card.

After the April meeting adjourned, its minutes and the report were sealed for 50 years.

The paper requested the records under New Hampshire’s Right to Know law.

Judge Kenneth Brown of Hillsborough County Superior Court North in Manchester ruled May 31 that the district must turn over the minutes of the meeting, though it may redact the names of people who cooperated in the investigation.

However, the judge ruled the board does not have to turn over the report on the former superintendent’s credit card use.

“The School District contends that Eggert’s report is categorically exempt from disclosure as a ‘record pertaining to internal personnel practices,’” Brown wrote. “The court agrees.”

Gregory Sullivan, the attorney representing the paper, said the judge’s ruling was a partial victory.

“We were pleased that the judge saw fit to unseal the minutes that had been sealed for 50 years,” Sullivan said.

He said the redaction of names of the people who cooperated in the investigation is done to encourage people to cooperate in the future without fear of their names being revealed.

Sullivan said he “was very disappointed [the judge] saw fit to leave the investigator’s report sealed.”

The government often uses the “personnel matters” exemption far too broadly and the court recognized that, Sullivan said.

He said he did not know if his client would instruct him to appeal the decision and continue trying to obtain the report.

Geoffrey Brock, chairman of the school board, said in an email that when the investigation was complete, Eggert recommended the board hear the investigation “in non-public” pursuant to New Hampshire’s Right to Know law.

“The board followed our attorney’s recommendations, heard the findings and sealed both the report and the minutes of the session,” Brock said.

The board’s goals were simple, he said.

“We wanted to comply with the law, and we wanted to prevent to the extent possible any district liability for invasion of privacy, character defamation, interference with future job opportunities, etc.,” he said.

He said the board’s objectives of complying with the law and minimizing district liability were achieved by the ruling.

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer

access to public records, New Hampshire, news, Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District

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