By PHILLIP BANTZ
A Vermont man has filed a right-to-know lawsuit against the city of Keene that could affect the way public records requests are answered across the state.
Wallace S. Nolen of Barre, Vt., presented his case Monday in Cheshire County Superior Court. He wants an electronic document containing the names, titles, salaries, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and work locations of every city employee.
The city has already provided paperwork containing that information to Nolen, with the exception of work locations for each employee, because no such record exists and the city is not required to create one, according to City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins.
The city was not even required by state law to comply with Nolen’s request because he is not a New Hampshire resident, Mullins said.
He said the city has already gone “above and beyond” by giving Nolen paperwork with the employee information he requested, and should not be required to provide it again in electronic form, he said.
But Nolen said he doesn’t want paperwork. He wants the information to be provided on a CD or e-mailed to him so he can easily plug it into a massive database he’s building. The database contains employee information from tens of thousands of municipalities in 30 states, including much of New England, he said.
Nolen is building the database in preparation for a class-action lawsuit aimed at overhauling unclaimed property laws. He wants banks and state treasurers to be more diligent in helping people claim lost assets.
Nolen is gathering the employee information because he says states consistently fail to notify not only residents but their own employees of unclaimed property to which they are entitled.
Nolen said he was spurred to action after being deprived of funds in his deceased father’s bank account because of flaws in the laws.
Because the city of Keene has refused to provide employee information electronically, Nolen said he must manually enter the information into his database, which will take too much time.
Nolen also wants the city to be required to answer right-to-know requests sent by e-mail.
The city typically requires requests to be submitted in writing and dropped off at the City Clerk’s office or mailed.
Communicating via e-mail will streamline the process, make it more environmentally friendly and save the city money in printing and paper costs, Nolen argued.
“In today’s day and age, things should be sent electronically,” he said. “Are you telling me that if I want something from Los Angeles, I have to drive all the way to Los Angeles?”
The city should not be forced to answer right-to-know requests via e-mail, Mullins said. The clerk’s office, which handles the requests, would become inundated with frivolous public records demands and unable to function, he said.
“If we have to do that, the city is going to be placed in a very difficult situation,” he said. “We could be receiving potentially thousands of e-mails.”
The N.H. Supreme Court has never addressed the transmittal of information tied to a public records request, according to Mullins.
“I haven’t seen a case on it,” he said, “and I’ve definitely been looking.”
In a separate right-to-know issue, Nolen has requested any evidence in the case of David Ridley, an activist and videographer from Grafton. Ridley was arrested in March at Keene District Court when he refused to turn off his camera in the court’s lobby.
The Keene Police Department initially refused Nolen’s request, saying the Ridley case was an open investigation and therefore exempt from public record.
But after contacting Mullins, the department acknowledged that certain information could be released.
Mullins said he provided Nolen with paperwork containing basic details in Ridley’s arrest, but Nolen demanded any audio or video evidence the authorities may have from the courthouse incident. That evidence does not exist, Mullins said.
Judge John P. Arnold is reviewing both prongs of Nolen’s right-to-know lawsuit. He is expected to render a decision in a matter of weeks.
During the hearing, Mullins accused Nolen of verbally abusing city employees over the course of his right-to-know requests — the first was filed in March. He said Nolen’s lawsuit is baseless and constitutes harassment.
If Arnold determines the lawsuit is harassment, he could order Nolen to pay the city for legal fees it incurred in fighting the suit.
Nolen is also seeking compensation for legal fees. He has accused city employees of stonewalling him.