Editor’s note: This commentary appeared in the Mesquite Local News on July 24. Within hours of its publication online, Mesquite City Manager Andy Barton reached out to TransparentNevada to say he would work on providing the information. Mesquite has since provided TransparentNevada with data from 2012 and 2013. It can be viewed at the following links: http://transparentnevada.com/salaries/2012/mesquite/ and http://transparentnevada.com/salaries/2013/mesquite/.
By Robert Fellner
Nevada’s Public Records Act — long a part of state law — gets lots of verbal support from people in state and local government.
“Certainly the voters have a right to know how their money is being spent,” politicians and bureaucrats will say.
Behind the scenes, however, their frequent response is conscious, militant obstruction.
The City of Mesquite provides a classic example.
First, a bit of background: Government accountability can’t exist unless citizens, reporters and even politicians have a practical way to access information on exactly how governments — state and local — are spending the public’s money.
That’s why the Nevada Policy Research Institute, in 2008, launched TransparentNevada.com and began filing public-records requests under the Nevada Public Records Act (NPRA).
Today TransparentNevada provides the public with all kinds of important state and local government financial data in user-friendly, searchable formats — including employee compensation data for virtually every city, county, school district and state agency in Nevada.
Making this possible is the fact that 95 percent of governments in Nevada obey state law and produce the requested information in a more-or-less timely fashion. Given the routine nature of the information requested — such as the yearly account of the government’s compensation of its employees — providing the records is not difficult.
Still, a handful of governments are not represented on the site and, thus, not subject to public scrutiny. Most of them have old payroll systems that make it difficult to provide the requested information in an accessible format. Lincoln County, for example, recently provided a raw text file of its data, which will be posted once it is reformatted.
But then we come to the City of Mesquite.
In the past — for the years 2009, 2010 and 2011 — city officials there provided all requested compensation information.
In 2012, however, they stopped.
In the usual manner, NPRI requested the 2012 information on Jan. 7, 2013.
Advised that the city had adopted a new public-records request form that needed to be filled out, NPRI filled out and submitted the form the following day. The Institute was then told that the records would be provided on or before Feb. 11, 2013.
On Feb. 7, however, the city contacted NPRI to say that, while the records were ready, the nonprofit would need to pay the city $630 to cover its costs for producing those records.
While the state’s public records law does allow government entities to charge “when extraordinary use of personnel or resources is required,” Mesquite is the only city in the history of TransparentNevada to assert that reporting its payroll information to the public required an “extraordinary use of personnel or resources.”
Additionally, the city had ignored NPRA’s requirement — at NRS 239.055 — that before charging members of the public for any “extraordinary use” costs, “the governmental entity shall inform the requester, in writing, of the amount of the fee before preparing the requested information.” (emphasis added.)
NPRI was then told it had taken city staff 18 hours to put the data requested into the sample spreadsheet template NPRI had provided.
On Feb. 11, NPRI Media Specialist Eric Davis emailed Mesquite’s new city manager, Andy Barton, asking for the charge to be waived — on the grounds that 1) contrary to law, NPRI had not been informed of the fee beforehand; 2) the city had never charged the Institute for the same information before; 3) this was clearly no “extraordinary use of resources” and 4) NPRI, a nonprofit, maintains Transparent Nevada and its information as a public service.
Two days later, NPRI received a formal reply from Mesquite City Clerk Cherry L. Lawson, which also copied both Barton and Mesquite City Attorney Cheryl Truman Hunt.
“Please be aware,” wrote Lawson, “that staff has communicated with you the fees to prepare the requested information, and you have completed and returned the request to Lucille Walters for processing” — implying, apparently, that because the Mesquite public-records request form lists various possible charges, the bill complied with state law and therefore any charges it chooses to later hit records requestors with must be paid.
Then, rather than simply emailing the spreadsheet Mesquite city employees had already prepared, Lawson — who said in her letter that she was “releasing the requested information” — went to an extra effort designed to frustrate the principle of public transparency, while ostensibly obeying the law.
By certified mail, she sent the “requested information” to NPRI in essentially unusable form: multiple sheets of paper, 17 inches wide and 11.5 inches high, bearing color printouts of the requested data.
Mesquite has yet to provide the information in a usable format.
This article originally appeared in the Mesquite Local News.
Robert Fellner is the transparency researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more, visit npri.org.