The ‘Open Meeting Law’ Distraction

By Steven Miller
  • Thursday, July 29, 2004

For many months now, Nevada’s university regents have been virtually locked in the public stocks over what the Attorney General and a district court judge recently agreed were violations of the state’s open meeting law.

Such violations, even in spirit, are not a trivial matter. After all, the fundamental principle behind Nevada’s open-meeting and open-records statutes is that a sovereign people have the right to know what their purported representatives are doing for them—or, indeed, to them—at all relevant times.

Unfortunately for the state’s public boards, however, Nevada’s law ultimately swaddles that principle—when it comes to personnel matters—in a fog of self-contradiction. This means, for public bodies, life proceeds in a permanent double bind.

It also means the kind of sham we’ve seen for months perpetrated by some of the regents’ most high-profile critics: Eager though they’ve been to hammer regents about the head and shoulders with the open-meeting statutes, the critics themselves demonstrate little appetite, if any, for genuinely open government.

Indeed, it is now clear that much of the hullabaloo about “open meeting violations” was raised only for the purpose of suppressing full public understanding of what had been going on in top offices of the Community College of Southern Nevada (CCSN).

Recall the events of last fall. Revelations of repetitive scofflaw behavior by Assemblyman Wendell Williams—whether regarding traffic offenses, child-support obligations or campaign finance law—dominated the news. Then a CCSN employee and female protégé of Williams, Topazia Briget Jones, went to the UCCSN chancellor with allegations that also, if inadvertently, suggested corrupt influence by the assemblyman inside the community college.

So the university system retained an experienced ex-federal investigator to probe both Williams’ influence inside CCSN and the protégé’s allegations. The investigator soon turned up independent confirmation of many of the young woman’s charges, some of which had suggested systemic corruption in CCSN’s government-relations operation. Running that office was a long-time political ally of Williams, John Cummings—a lobbyist-cum-spinmeister of renown who had been given carte blanche by CCSN President Remington.

From all appearances, “Chief Adviser to the President” Cummings had been using taxpayer resources to construct a powerful, personal, political machine inside CCSN. A $750,000 advertising contract had brought aboard Cummings’ former employer and the go-to political consultants of Nevada’s powerful government unions—Paladin Advertising. Democrat strategist and Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, another former employer of Cummings (when both served the state teacher union), was hired at $70,000 annually to “provide support, information and coordination” between Southern Nevada school districts and CCSN. Democrat Assemblyman Mark Manendo received a $30,000 annual stipend to “recruit” students for the already crowded college. Multiple CCSN interviews showed Cummings had been operating an intimidating carrot-or-stick / job-or-punishment patronage system inside the college, based on taxpayer dollars and his power as Remington’s surrogate.

It is an important fact—but one widely evaded—that after considering Cummings’ activities, regents voted 9-to-4 to remove him from his lofty position.

Why was that? Consider that the main criticism of Remington was that he had simply let Cummings run rampant. Thus, to prove Remington had in fact exercised due diligence, all his partisans on the board needed to do was show that Cummings’ activities had been appropriate.

It speaks volumes, therefore, that there has been no such effort.

What followed instead was a well-executed strategic distraction—this prolonged ruckus over alleged disobedience to Nevada’s often overly nuanced and contradictory open-meeting statutes.

But notice that those who have wrapped themselves in the open-meeting flag most ostentatiously have not, themselves, been eager to help the public learn details of Cummings’ taxpayer-financed political operations:

  • Former CCSN President Remington opposed release to the public of the investigator’s 1,026-page report.
  • Assemblywoman Giunchigliani, in a clear conflict of interest, worked vigorously behind the scenes to discourage then-Chancellor Jane Nichols from even listening to what Ms. Jones had to say. Moreover, Giunchigliani sought to intimidate Nichols with highly dubious “legal opinions” from what Giunchigliani called “my legislative legal department,” i.e., the state’s Legislative Counsel Bureau.
  • Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval sued regents for, among other things, “deliberating” on Remington and Cummings—and even “considering” Giunchigliani—during closed sessions. But, interestingly, he has never demanded that transcripts of those “illegally” closed sessions be released to the public. 

He should—coupled with balancing responses from all involved. For far too long this state’s political class has hidden the misdeeds of government employees away from their employers—the people of Nevada.

This must end.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute

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