Judge: No right-to-know violation by Exeter town manager
BRENTWOOD — A judge has ruled that Exeter Town Manager Russell Dean didn’t violate the state’s Right-to-Know law when he failed to respond to Selectman Francis Ferraro’s request for government documents in a timely manner.
Ferraro took the town and Dean to court in July after claiming that Dean didn’t respond within five days after he sent an e-mail seeking documents outlining the costs and operation of a solar array installed at the town’s wastewater treatment plant last year.
Ferraro argued that Dean ignored the Right-to-Know law, which requires a response to a request for government documents within five days.
He then filed a petition in Rockingham County Superior Court arguing that Dean broke the law and has shown a pattern of “delaying response or failing to respond to legitimate requests for government records,” the petition said.
Dean denied the accusations.
In this case, Dean claimed he thought Ferraro made the request for information in his role as a selectman and not as a private citizen when he sent his original e-mail on July 21 seeking the documents pertaining to the solar project.
Ferraro did not indicate in his e-mail that he was making the request as a citizen under the Right-to-Know law, which isn’t required under the law, but Dean indicated that he would have responded quicker had he known.
In response to the petition, the attorneys for Dean and the town, Mitchell Municipal Group, argued Dean “naturally believed that this was one of the regular requests that he often fields from individual selectmen, who serve as his supervisors and employers.” They also maintained that the “real purpose” of taking legal action was to “undermine” Dean in his position as a town employee, according to their response to the petition.
“Because the plaintiff did not specifically state that the request was made under the Right-to-Know law, and because Mr. Ferraro had made requests of him in the past as a board of selectmen member, the court finds that Mr. Dean’s conclusion that the request was not a Right-to-Know request was reasonable,” Judge Kenneth McHugh wrote in Friday’s order.
Ferraro, who has since received some of the information he wanted, argued that he didn’t give up his rights as an ordinary citizen just because he was elected to the board of selectmen. However, McHugh noted that “when a municipal official has no reason to believe that a request made was a Right-to-Know request, then the requirement regarding production of the sought after documents in five business days does not apply.”
McHugh denied all of Ferraro’s requests, including that Dean be required to reimburse the town for the legal fees related to the case.
He also denied the town’s request that Ferraro reimburse the town for having to defend itself, finding that Ferraro did not act in bad faith.