|News Media Update||NEW HAMPSHIRE||Freedom of Information||April 14, 2005|
Names, addresses private on public utility complaints
- The state high court rebuffed a citizen’s efforts to learn from the Public Utility Commission who in his community had complained about the convenience and safety of electricity.
April 14, 2005 — There is no public interest in the names and addresses of residential customers who file complaints about public utilities with a state regulatory agency, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Monday. In refusing to release the records for privacy reasons, the court reversed a lower court decision that disclosure would serve a major public interest.
The high court rejected the Public Utility Commission’s claim that business names and addresses are also private, but found the public’s interest in the residential information “virtually nonexistent,” outweighed by the residential customers’ privacy interest in “not being disturbed at home.”
The high court, in assessing the privacy exemptions to the state’s Right-to-Know Act, quoted liberally from federal court decisions interpreting the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Bedford resident Brian Lamy, concerned over ongoing voltage problems and public safety in his community, asked the commission in 2003 for copies of four years of reports about responses to complaining customers. He got the reports but the commission crossed out names and addresses to protect “personal privacy.”
Lamy sued and in April 2004 the Merrimack County Superior Court ordered the names and addresses disclosed, ruling that without them, the public could not assess the commission’s response to complaints in particular areas of town. High-quality electric service “is of major interest to us all,” while privacy interests in these records are “not strongly compelling, “the lower court wrote.
Lamy showed the court that complaints from Bedford had accounted for 29 percent of the complaints filed with the Public Utilities Commission district serving the town, a percentage greatly disproportionate to the town’s population.
He and a neighbor conducted surveys finding 150 residents with electrical problems and a high number of electrical fires reported to the fire department, according to a November 2003 neighborhood publication, The Bedford Bulletin. Lamy told the Bulletin he had had to replace every major appliance in his house.
(Lamy v. Public Utility Commission; Requester counsel: William Chapman, Orr & Reno, Concord, N.H.) — RD
© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press