Episode 90: Fighting for Transparency in Government

Michael Schaus

Free to Offend Episode 90 | Guest: Michelle Rindels, Nevada Open Government Coalition

Keeping government open, accessible and accountable is one of those few policy areas where groups on all sides of the political divide can agree – and yet, it remains one of the most challenging public-policy fights we face on a daily basis. From police departments to local school districts, public officials and institutions routinely deny activists and journalists access to otherwise “public” information.

Michelle Rindels is a journalist and the president of the Nevada Open Government Coalition, and she joined the program to talk about the importance of open government, the challenges we face in Nevada and what ordinary citizens can do to keep their public officials accountable to the people they serve.

Read the Transcript

Michelle Rindels: Transparency advocates are going to get overrun by the governments and the many lobbyists that are there every day working to try to keep this information secret. And that’s just against the whole intent of that bill.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. I am very happy to welcome our guest today, Michelle Rindels. She is, of course, with the Nevada Independent. She’s a great reporter. Before that, she was with the AP. I’m sure you’ve read her byline, and she does a lot of fantastic work, especially when the legislature is in session, just because I depend on a lot of her work so very, very much at that point in the year.

But she’s also the president of the Nevada Open Government Coalition, which is a great organization. Way back when in a former life when I was actually the Communications Director for Nevada Policy, I remember that this whole coalition first began.

And it was great to see because you had people from the ACLU, you had reporters, you had activists from all up and down the political spectrum come together and say, “Hey, this is one of those issues we all care about, and it doesn’t really matter where your politics are. We just need government to be open and accessible to average people.”

Michelle, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Michelle Rindels: Thanks so much for having me, Michael.

Michael Schaus: First and foremost, I guess we’ll start off with the easy one, kind of explain to folks what the Open Government Coalition is in Nevada, what your guys real focus is and why you exist in the first place.

Michelle Rindels: Yeah, the Open Government Coalition was started in 2020 by Patrick File, who is a UNR professor that teaches about public records and is just very passionate about this issue. It really started based on an experience that came out of the 2019 session, when a diverse group of folks kind of informally got together to try to pass a public records bill.

I think after that experience of working together on this legislation and really trying to make it happen, there was a desire to have something more permanent in place. And that was how the coalition was born.

But there are open government coalitions all over the country in a variety of states. And so, there’s a loose organization of folks like us. And we’re kind of one chapter of a larger cluster of these types of groups nationwide that kind of communicate with each other.

Michael Schaus: And it’s important too, because it’s one of those issues as we mentioned, you know, it doesn’t really matter where you are on the political spectrum. You might think that this policy is good or that policy is good.

There seems to be a big consensus among normal people that we do need a transparent government. Regardless of how else you feel about government, transparency is going to be key just to make sure that they are accountable, and to make sure that they’re actually doing what they say they’re supposed to do.

And yet, despite that bipartisan agreements that we should have a transparent government, sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to actually get government to act transparently.

As a reporter, you know this probably better than most people because you’re constantly out there trying to get information about elected officials or public officials or government spending.

Why is there such a big disconnect between what clearly we all think is a good idea and how it actually plays out in practice?

Michelle Rindels: My hypothesis is that there’s not like this coalesced momentum. People are kind of making their own public records requests privately, you know, as a news organization, and maybe their competitors are doing something else. And there’s not a lot of communication between news organizations or groups on the right and groups on the left.

But there’s so much in common, you know? There are so many goals that really do unite us in spite of the many differences. So sometimes I feel like one person is out there complaining about lack of access and no one else is there to back them up.

I feel like what the Nevada Open Government Coalition can really do is amplify these issues, say, “Hey, we’re all struggling to get body cam footage. Let’s just work together here and create a drumbeat to government to try to say we’re not okay with massive fees for body cam footage or just this crazy rule on the process.”

Michael Schaus: Yeah. I remember that was years ago. It might’ve been in 2016 or 2017 or something. Me and a couple of folks were trying to get information regarding civil asset forfeiture, for example, and we were the only ones who were really trying to do that.

So, you’re absolutely right, our voice was alone. When we tried to complain about it, it was like, we were the only people. It felt like a niche issue, but it was part of obviously the bigger issue of just getting information from the police departments. This is where the coalition can really kind of come into its own.

What are some of the largest concerns for the coalition right now when you look at Nevada? I know a couple of years ago, you mentioned in 2019, we were looking at how do we actually hold departments and individual elected officials accountable for flouting current transparency laws.

What are some of the big concerns as the coalition looks at how Nevada is operating now? What kind of makes you cringe and say that’s something that we’re going to have to change?

Michelle Rindels: Well, one thing that’s really come to the forefront is the issue of body cam footage because I believe it was probably 2017 and then again in 2019, where there was a real push to get a body cam on all of the police officers. And it was an exciting moment when they passed that.

But then when you see the headlines from, I think it was this week Metro is charging $320 an hour for body cam footage, which is just going to be completely out of reach for the average person. It’s just not going to be able to be utilized, even though there’s just massive amounts of this information that are being produced by these body cams.

There’s also a big concern about some court rulings that say body cam footage is a series of photos and therefore the faces can be redacted which we believe is a misinterpretation of the intent of the legislature.

But unless we get together and create a strong enough force to kind of argue that point, I think the transparency advocates are going to get overrun by the governments and the many lobbyists that are there every day working to try to keep this information secret. And that’s just against the whole intent of that bill. I mean, I lived through those sessions, and the intent was out of these high profile killings of folks at the hands of police to really finally shed some light on that and give both sides, really the police and the people that are dealing with the police, protection. So that’s a big concern for us right now.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, I think, you know, and it’s a tactic I hate to use the term tactic because I don’t know if it’s always intentional on the part of government.

But, you know, okay, fine yeah, sure, we’ve got body cams. $350 an hour for us to go through it. That suddenly makes it really not transparent. It’s transparent on paper, it’s technically available to you. But the barrier to actually access it becomes so incredibly high.

We see that time and time again, where you might ask for information from a court or a school district or something. They say no. And the only way to really get that information is to go out and sue them. And if you don’t have the deep pockets to do that, you’re kind of stuck. That’s the reason why it has to happen on the law side and the legislative side.

What are some things that you guys are focusing on right now that you might be able to talk about in terms of some efforts that you guys are doing as the coalition to expand transparency, either on the law side of things (maybe possible legislation) or even just on kind of the practical side when it comes to local government and knowing what our local government’s up to?

Michelle Rindels: Yeah, so what I mentioned about the body cams is kind of an issue that we think may need legislation. So, we’re looking to 2025 and seeing what can be done there. But I’m passionate also about just transparency for everyday interactions you have with government.

I mean, I think the pandemic helped put a lot of things on livestream and that opened a whole new door for folks. I work for a news organization that is sort of statewide, so it’s a wonderful to me if someone in Carson City can watch that hearing that’s happening in Las Vegas, and we can seamlessly sort of connect this state together. So, all about that live streaming.

Another thing that I’m personally really into is the court documents and being able to freely access these documents. You know, the Nevada Supreme Court is really good about it. You can find every filing. It’s all online. It’s all free. There’s no password protection.

The Clark County courts are maybe not as good, but you can still get this online. There’s a way to do it. And then the Carson City District Court is incredibly opaque. I live close to the Carson City District Court. And I just thinking, am I going to have to walk over here and then personally request this lawsuit and then wait two weeks?

So, it’s just really, really troubling when we’re talking about lawsuits on the presidential election and the vote. I mean, this whole thing that went down in 2020 where there were efforts to question the validity of the election that was all playing out in this court where you cannot get these records online.

It’s crazy to me, and I think a lot of other people feel that way. But we need to get together to create some momentum around changing that and somehow figure out how that’s going to be paid for.

Michael Schaus: It’s funny because that’s one of those little things most people probably never even think about when it comes to transparency in courts because most people don’t really interact with the courts on a daily basis, unless you’re a journalist that, happens to be covering something. So, the average person probably doesn’t think about that.

But to your point, there’s a huge discrepancy between Supreme Court of Nevada or what’s going on in Clark County or what’s going on in Washoe County or maybe somewhere out in one of the more rural communities. There’s a huge gap between how open certain local governments can be.

Boy, when you actually need information, as you pointed out during 2020 when everything was about court cases, you can’t get it. That suddenly becomes a big problem.

You also mentioned the pandemic. It’s weird because the lockdowns did kind of, I think in a way, wake people up to the need for transparency on the local level. I remember talking to a couple of parents out in California that had never attended a school board meeting ever before in their life. And then all of a sudden, during COVID, they did because they just went right online. And they actually got to see how the school board operates. And it was kind of an eye opening experience for them where they said, “We never would have thought about that before.”

From that aspect, do you think that we are actually seeing more general transparency in local government now just because of the streaming services and kind of the expectations that were built into that whole COVID lockdown?

Michelle Rindels: Yeah, I think we have seen improvements as a result of that.

One other example is the legislature. You know, you’re talking about school boards of people being able to participate virtually. The legislature is the same problem. I mean, there’s bills that are of great importance, and there’s just nobody there to testify on either side of it. There’s just so many transparency issues that led up to that situation.

But in the pandemic, they had phone line public comment, which was a completely novel concept up until 2021 or 2020. And they allowed email public comments to be added to the record. And this stuff was just not even happening.

I think it opened up kind of a whole new world of opportunity for people to participate because really some of these important meetings about major education policy are happening at 2:30 in the morning. There’s just absolutely no way a real parent could be hanging around for 11 hours with their screen open or be in in the room.

I think the pandemic has really created some changes that I hope are permanent and I hope are adopted by not just the legislature, but all the boards that we have in the state.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. I hope that it kind of changed expectations too. I think, as soon as people realized, “Well, wait a minute, I can just call in my testimony. I don’t have to go down to the Grant Sawyer building or go to the actual legislature if you’re up north and sit there for hours and hours and then finally give my testimony. I can just make a phone call. I can just send it an email.” All of a sudden you get people who can take advantage of that, and it changes your expectations.

I think something that we saw in this last legislative session. I saw more op eds just floating around, people talking about how much of a lack of transparency there is in the legislative process, and you know this better than anybody else, especially in the last couple of weeks when there’s just everything’s happening overnight and not a whole lot of public debate on things.

Some of that boils down to actual laws. I mean, the open meetings law, for example, doesn’t apply to the legislature. But also, I think some of it was expectations had shifted. People were saying, “Well, wait a minute, how come I can’t get all the information I want right online right now during the legislative session?”

Do you think lawmakers are going to come around to recognizing that expectation and maybe trying to be a little bit more transparent during the legislative sessions, for example?

Michelle Rindels: I certainly hope so.

Michael Schaus: I’m always hopeful. Eternal hope.

Michelle Rindels: They’re in their own little world, too, doing things in their own time frame. And this can get pushed by the wayside. So, I think it’s important that there are people reminding them and urging them please schedule a meeting that has to do with important issues affecting kids at a time when teachers can participate and parents can participate. And try to keep to a schedule and try to make sure that opportunity for speaking is at the front end and not behind like four other bills so everyone else drops out.

Sometimes you wonder if all this is intentional when they mess around with the agenda and take the most interesting bill last. But yeah, I think it takes people to speak up about that to kind of pressure folks to keep this top of mind.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. And if you read my op eds, you know, I definitely do think a lot of its intentional, but that’s just my opinion.

Especially because you are a journalist, you’ve been dealing with trying to get information from government on a variety of issues, you know, throughout your entire career. I was a journalist and then after that, I was in the policy world. So obviously I’ve got a lot of experience.

What I realized was a lot of folks don’t have to interact with the government very often. And so, they don’t have to go out there and do an information request or something like that very often. When they do, they look at the process and they go, well, I don’t even know where to start. It’s almost overwhelming to them.

As somebody that does this all the time, and being the president of the Open Government Coalition, what are some things that you think would surprise people, either good or bad, when it comes to just kind of the state of transparency in Nevada?

If you want something from your local government or state government, want to find something out, what are some of the things that would surprise somebody who has never really gone through that process before?

Michelle Rindels: I think sometimes it can be a bit of black box. You know, you submit what you think is a simple request and somehow it gets translated into it’s going to take eight months to fulfill.

So, I think over time you kind of have to come up with ways to make your request narrow enough. There’s some element of like developing rapport with the folks handling the requests enough that they are working with you, and they should be working with you and take the request seriously.

Some requests that you think is simple, they might throw out a price tag of half a million dollars, which is what happened to the Review Journal as they were trying to look into DETER records. Sometimes it’s how it’s written, and you’ve got to be specific, and you’ve got to be finite in your timeline. And you’ve got to hope that they’re going to, as they should, work with you to make this request a manageable, reasonable thing.

Michael Schaus: We’ve already talked about it with the body cam footage, you mentioned the Review Journal and trying to get information from DETER. Consistently you’ll have people who, even if they do this for a living and they’re constantly getting information from various government agencies, will run across surprises like, you wanted to charge me how much for something or you’re saying no to this request?

I know that we’ve run into that a lot trying to get information in California and Nevada about public expenditures or something. And all of a sudden, they say, “Oh, nope, sorry, I can’t give you that information”. And it’s like really, because now we have to sue again to get information that we already had to sue several weeks ago in order to get information from.

The Open Government Coalition has how many members now? Is it 17 board members or something like that? You guys seem to keep on growing.

Michelle Rindels: I think we’re about a dozen board members at this point. Our newest members include Anjeanette Damon, reporter at ProPublica. She’s been in the state for a really long time with Reno Gazette Journal and Las Vegas Sun and does an amazing job as a journalist.

We’ve got Alex Falconi who runs Our Nevada Judges. He is really keeping a great eye on transparency in the courts out of his own personal experience struggling with family courts. So, he knows on a personal level how important that is.

And then Bob Conrad of This Is Reno, who has been really active in public records litigation and covers it a lot through This Is Reno.

Michael Schaus: If people want to find out more about what you guys are up to, what you guys are working on and, help you, or even just reach out to you even if they just have questions when it comes to open government and open meeting laws, where’s the best place for them to go and do that?

Michelle Rindels: Yeah, we’ve got a web presence. We are at nevadaopengov.org. There you’re going to find information about us and our board. You’ll find a form really that you can fill out and say, “I’ve been having this type of public records issue. I want to let you guys know.”

Sometimes we get people saying, ‘Hey, I’m really struggling getting information from the Nevada Department of Corrections. Is it normal for them to tell me that it’s going to take six months to fulfill this request?” Or “I’m having trouble with this with CCSD.”

So, we’re hoping to kind of be a repository. Even if we can’t always answer the question, we can kind of be an intake and people can feel like they’re not alone. And we can hopefully do something with that information. It can help guide our initiatives based on what problems people are seeing out in the wild.

Michael Schaus: It at least lets you guys know that this problem seems to exist somewhere. Maybe it was already on your radar or maybe it’s something that, “Oh, we should add that to the list of things that we need to start focusing on.”

You guys do fantastic work. Again, transparency is one of those issues that’s really close to home for me because I’ve been in the business of trying to get information from various government agencies for most of my professional life. I’m glad to see that you guys are out there. I’m glad to see that it’s building.

Michelle Rindels: For those that are in Vegas, we will be having a Sunshine Week event. You’ll get to meet us in Vegas at the CSN Charleston campus on March 12th, 2024. We’ve already got our date down.

Another thing I wanted to share with just the average person that you can find on our website is a sample public records request and a public records online self-guided course, so you can kind of know where to start and familiarize yourself with the process. So, there are just some great resources there if you’re starting from square one and just need some guidance on getting information.

Michael Schaus: That is perfect. Again, the average person who doesn’t have to do this all the time, it can seem kind of intimidating. Having some sort of a resource that you can go to and say, “Oh, they can help me. They can walk me through it. They can answer some of these easy questions that otherwise I’d be sitting and Googling for hours,” that’s excellent.

Michelle, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Michelle Rindels: Thanks so much, Michael.

Michael Schaus: Again, Michelle Rindels, reporter with Nevada Independent and also the president of the Nevada Open Government Coalition. Again, this is a coalition that’s got a very, very wide ideological background.

I mean, Nevada Policy was one of the original groups in that group in 2019 that kind of hobbled together the unofficial coalition and then helped create a real coalition. Then of course, you’ve got a bunch of journalists. The ACLU was a part of the original effort there. This is one of those issues you can find allies pretty much anywhere you look if you care about open government and transparency because you don’t have to agree on policy. You don’t have to agree on politics. Most of us believe that government should be answerable and open and accountable to the people that is ostensibly serves.

Oftentimes, it’s not just the natural incentives for government that it’s going to fight that. You see that playing out with things like the body cam footage and Clark County trying to charge 300 and some odd dollars for each hour that it will have to review. I mean, government finds plenty of ways to not be transparent, even when we’ve got laws that say they’re supposed to.

So, having some sort of a watchdog organization out there, having some sort of a resource for people who are trying to interact with their local governments, that’s helpful. Again, the Nevada Open Government Coalition.

Thank you so much for listening today. If you go to nevadapolicy.org/podcast, you can sign up not only for these podcasts. You can also let us know if there are any guests or any topics that you think we ought to cover.

This has been Free to Offend.

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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.