#3 REFORM

#3. Reform Needed After Secretary of State’s Office Has Grown Dramatically in Size, Function, and Autonomy
New Hampshire’s constitution never envisioned an office that has grown so dramatically in size, scope, and which has removed key state functions from traditional legislative oversight.

The Secretary of State’s Office includes seven divisions, all critical to New Hampshire citizens but not all treated with the same attention. In addition to Elections, Administration, Archives, the Corporate Division, and the Uniform Commercial Code, the office also assumed responsibility from other state agencies for the Division of Vital Records Administration (in the last decade), and the Bureau of Securities Regulation (in the 1990s). The Elections division is essentially run by Deputy Secretaries of State who are exempt from confirmation or oversight by the legislature or Executive Council. The office regularly declines to establish rule-making through the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (“JLCAR”).

Demanding rigorous accountability, professional oversight, and rule-making is what our citizens expect — especially as this office has taken on many roles beyond its original constitutional scope.

Reform and modern accountability policies not only save taxpayer funds, but can also better protect individual rights & liberties. Last fall, it was reported that the Secretary of State’s office had hosted voter lists in public archives for years without removing confidential personal information from at least 51 checklists, including driver’s license numbers and legally-protected home addresses of voters who had requested privacy while living under the protection of restraining orders. Financial management questions have also been raised (example below).

It is time for a full review, with legislative, municipal, and stakeholder input on how to reform the office with the appropriate accountability, rule-making, professional requirements, and oversight that we should demand from all public entities. Legislators must have the freedom to consider and decide a wide range of options — from enhanced consumer privacy statutes, to requiring legislative or Executive Council hiring input for key roles, to moving some office functions back to agencies more accountable to the legislature. The next Secretary of State should be asked to focus on what’s best for the people of NH without regard to protecting turf. To consider:

  • The office could begin following standard rule-making processes in cooperation with legislative practice.
  • Our Elections division could be managed by a professional, nonpartisan Director role instead of a second Deputy.
  • Our Vital Records division could be protected with stronger privacy statues to protect individual liberties. (This office, among other functions, maintains extraordinarily private medical information and identity records for every death and birth in NH — including past pregnancy complications, adoption information, and medical history of the mother.)
  • Our Bureau of Consumer Protections could build a new relationship with the Attorney General’s office to prevent arbitrary use or mismanagement of financial settlements.

The Department of State’s many responsibilities and hardworking staff deserve our best attention. Citizens entrust our state government with protecting our rights – and by thoroughly reviewing reforms within the Secretary of State’s divisions, we can show that we value this public trust more than protecting turf or sheltering functions from legislative oversight.

EXAMPLE: MANAGING SETTLEMENTS

After the Secretary of State’s Bureau of Securities Regulation won a multi-million dollar settlement from Tyco, Inc, the SoS office drew criticism from inside & out for distributing funds arbitrarily via private invitation — without a public process, open bidding, or oversight by the legislature or Executive Council. This included a $400,000 contract for a CNN Financial Editor to host a ‘series of forums’. [“Questions Raised about $7mm Tyco Settlement Spending,” NH Business Review, 7/26/13].

In contrast, a state settlement from national mortgage lenders – similar, but managed with better oversight by the NH Departments of Justice & Banking – required full review by the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and the Executive Council. The funds were competitively bid, designated for direct counseling for NH homeowners facing foreclosure, and delivered by regional nonprofits. Public meetings & online annual reports show the counseling helped 2,569 NH homeowners facing foreclosure. 94% of those reaching final resolution with program counselors avoided foreclosure, and the program was successfully sunset as foreclosures fell to pre-recession levels in 2015. [HomeHelpNH Annual Report, 2015]

Sources: http://www.nhbr.com/July-26-2013/Questions-raised-about-7m-Tyco-settlement-spending.; http://homehelpnh.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/HomeHelpNH_report_2015_Final.pdf. https://www.wmur.com/article/nh-voter-data-transfer-to-trump-commission-put-on-hold/12118397. https://www.concordmonitor.com/voter-checklist-notes-12148685