By Thomas Mitchell
It is time to put some teeth into Nevada’s public records law. Even though state law requires that all public records and books, except those specifically exempted as confidential by law, must be open for inspection and copying, government agencies have been flouting the law for years, refusing to turn over anything that might prove embarrassing to the agency or its bosses. Police refuse to release records. School districts and cities conduct investigations of
misconduct and refuse to release the results. One coroner refuses to release autopsies, even to a spouse. The public employee pension system refuses to release the names and pensions of pensioners.
And when someone challenges the intransigence in court, the agencies hire lawyers and spend tax dollars to fight letting the taxpayers know what they are doing with our money. When they lose, they shrug it off and do it all over again, because there are no consequences for the agency or the decision makers.
Now comes Senate Bill 287, which would put some skin in the game for the agencies and the people who wrongly deny public records requests.
Should SB287 become law, if a court determines a governmental entity or the person making the decision on behalf of the governmental entity wrongly denies a records request, the requester may be awarded a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 or more than $250,000 per offense from the agency or the responsible party or both.
That part about making the responsible party pay up should grease a few skids. Perhaps it also should specify that the agency may not reimburse the responsible party for the civil penalty.
A newly formed group called Right to Know Nevada sent out a press release via email recently supporting SB287. Maggie McLetchie, an attorney who has represented the Las Vegas newspaper in a number of records lawsuits, was quoted as saying, “By ensuring that existing law is actually followed, Senator (David) Parks’ bill would reduce the need for expensive public records litigation, which is a good thing. The goal is to eliminate the need for costly lawsuits and to simply have the government be fully transparent and accountable to the people it serves, which is what state law already requires.”
ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said, “While existing law already requires a response within 5 business days, we have experienced vastly different response times, not to mention fees, from governments across the state in response to the identical request. In fact, some agencies simply never responded to our request at all.”
The bill would also limit what an agency could charge for a public record to what it actually costs to produce it, excluding labor cost. Passage of SB287 might actually put some meaning into the original law’s intended purpose: “The purpose of this chapter is to foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law; The provisions of this chapter must be construed liberally to carry out this important purpose; Any exemption, exception or balancing of interests which limits or restricts access to public books and records by members of the public must be construed narrowly.”
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Thomas Mitchell is a former newspaper editor who now writes conservative/libertarian columns for weekly papers in Nevada. You may
email Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.