Let me begin by thanking the New England First Amendment Coalition for the work that you do, and for this award.
I am honored to accept this award as President of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire.
I accept this award on behalf of the 2,000 active and retired members from 43 local unions, who whole-heartedly supported the effort that brings me here today.
The quest for openness and transparency from the Local Government Center that our union began almost ten years ago has been a consuming endeavor. Before I begin my remarks, I would first like to thank my wife, and my two daughters for always supporting me. I’d like to thank them for listening to me and believing in me when others did not do the same.
I also want to recognize and thank the members of the Professional Firefighters of NH, our staff, and our very talented and dedicated Attorneys Richard Molan, Glenn Milner and John Krupski.
The First Amendment of our constitution lays out a sacred foundation for our democracy.
It assures every person the right to speak without that freedom being abridged in any way.
The right to know law allowed our union to doggedly pursue transparency from a governmental body that we knew to be using public money in a questionable manner.
Through a publicly owned risk pool, the LGC provides health benefits to public employees that cost nearly 400 million dollars annually. These risk pools have found their way into many of the states across our country. A concept on its face that sounds good… but left unchecked can be a bad deal for the unsuspecting taxpayer and municipal worker.
This is the situation we found happening in New Hampshire. As public employees, we found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of publically defending the rising cost of health insurance at the bargaining table and in the media, when we knew that the cost did not need to be that high. But we had to prove it.
Compounding the issue, was that cities, towns, taxpayers, and the media were calling upon fire fighters to work for lower pay and less benefits in order to compensate for the rising costs of health care.
This dynamic had serious potential to reduce the number of firefighter’s on-duty, which leads to increased response times to fires and medical emergencies and ultimately leads to reduced safety in our communities.
This fight has always been fundamentally a fairness issue between employers and employees as well as the right of the public to know how their money was being spent.
This story begins in the 90’s. With healthcare costs on the rise, unions in New Hampshire began to question how the money was being used by this risk pool. I was selected to sit as the very first union trustee on the board of this pool. After six and a half years of watching what was taking place I resigned. Knowing I could not use the information I learned as a Trustee I was forced to get the information through public access. So, immediately upon my resignation I filed a right to know request asking for documents to publicly prove what was happening.
The risk pool argued they were not covered by the right to know law and that their information was proprietary and confidential. We thought differently.
We believed that because the LGC was simply a group of cities and towns that were all subject to the right to know law, LGC must also be governed by it. The LGC protested, fighting our attempts at openness and after two trips to the Supreme Court, the Court ultimately agreed with our position and the LGC was forced to open their books. Our suspicions were confirmed and what followed was an exhausting and frustrating multi-year campaign for public recognition of LGC’s funding scheme.
All of this information gained from the LGC allowed us to illustrate clearly that they were using healthcare money for something other than healthcare.
This is a complicated topic; it is hard to know what is what just by reading, which is why in this case documents matter.
The information we had to offer was often not what people wanted to hear, and some had trouble believing it. But just because what we were saying was hard to believe, did not mean it was wrong. We spoke with just about every editorial board in this state and pitched countless stories to reporters. At first, no one picked up the stories. Even though we were not getting traction, we kept on pushing; fighting to get the facts out.
Documents gave the public, the press, and lawmakers something they could hold on to and something they could wrap their arms around.
With the wind now at our backs we shared these documents with representatives and senators. We gave the information we had to the Secretary of State and the bureau of securities regulation. We wanted anyone and everyone to have the information that we had so that a solution might be found to stop the overcharging that was going on.
The LGC is still fighting against the regulation. While a newly appointed interim executive director has required systemic transparency changes; the LGC has been slow to adopt this new change. The order, issued by an independent administrative hearings officer, has yet to be implemented, even after their fellow risk pools voluntarily stopped similar practices. The LGC has spent 2.2 million dollars of taxpayer, active and retired employee’s money legally fighting regulation. So unfortunately, this afternoon I do not have a definitive ending for you to this saga.
However, what became clear to me from this experience is that the first amendment, which we are here to celebrate this afternoon, is crucial to an effective democracy because it allows any person to speak truth to power. You may not like what is being said or who is saying it; but facts are hard to ignore.
It has taken us nearly a decade to get this far, forging ahead, speech protected, permitting us to say what was needed to be said to prove our case under the law. But the law does not require people to listen.
Our advocacy was only half of the battle; we were speaking out but we needed people to listen to what we were saying in order to have something done about it.
Members of the N.H. House and Senate not only listened to what we were saying, but they did something about it, passing much needed regulation and strengthening oversight of public risk pools in 2009 and 2010.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner and the dedicated attorneys of the Bureau of Securities Regulation listened and they chose to investigate further and ultimately decided to commence administrative hearings.
And lastly, the reporters and editors who listened and ultimately wrote about this issue and were able to bring it to light. They wrote about the issue so that others would be able to understand what we always knew.
I’ve been so fortunate to receive awards over this issue. In late 2012 I was awarded the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications first amendment award, which was presented by the Union Leader Newspaper. The Union Leader hasn’t always been supportive of our issues, but they understand the importance of the right to find the truth – even if they don’t always agree with the outcome. This is what makes the first amendment so important to our society.
What I hope we can all take away from this lesson, beyond the importance of the first amendment and what it does for those who wish to speak out, is that it is also important to hear what those people are saying, to consider it, and to pass it on to others so that knowledge can be gained and action can be taken.
In closing, this afternoon I once again use my right of free speech to inform you that the problem we find in New Hampshire is also nationwide. States across this nation allow these pools to operate with minimal oversight or transparency.
The Kentucky School Boards Association will close its workers compensation risk pool this summer sending a bill to the taxpayers of 60 million dollars. But you don’t need to go all the way to Kentucky; because here in New England this is happening. These municipal risk pools are in all six states. And what’s very troubling is that firefighters in other parts of this country are asking the tough questions, using free speech to demand transparency, and utilizing first amendment rights. But for the moment — not many are listening.
So the real question this afternoon is: will you?