Transparency runarounds

Karen Gray

Citizen oversight of government fosters public accountability, discourages disparate treatment and guards against abuses and corruption within government. 

Nevada's legislature has long recognized that transparency is crucial for public trust and to maintain governmental integrity.  As early as 1911, it adopted laws to ensure public access to Nevada's governments and its records.

Nevertheless, despite lawmakers' desire to keep public records accessible and the people's business in the open, the very laws created to secure open government are often manipulated to erect walls and cloak agencies from public scrutiny. 

Thus, sometimes, if public oversight comes at all, it comes with a hefty price tag. Recently, the Clark County School District demanded $4,000 in "extraordinary use" fees when asked to retrieve school-board trustee e-mails for public inspection. Defending that demand in a subsequent lawsuit, CCSD said the fees were necessary for the cost of district employees retrieving the documents from the computer and redacting confidential information from the district e-mails. In that case, CCSD subsequently reduced the fees to $135. Nonetheless, the court recently found in favor of the private citizen (this researcher) and the public as a whole—and ordered access to the records without charge.

However, that was just the case of one individual requester, who was fortunate enough to have been represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. Not every citizen has the ability to file a lawsuit, or pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars for public information.

The Clark County School District is well aware of this, as Kevinn Donovan recently learned. Concerned about CCSD budget cuts and school-board use of the 1998 Capital Improvement Bond monies, Donovan submitted a list of questions for CCSD clarification. For staff to answer his questions, said the district, would cost him $3,500. 

The district also seeks to impose fees when researchers merely ask to see certain district documents. This was the CCSD response when an NPRI researcher, reviewing district agenda materials, learned that over $3 million had been approved for payment to the Clark County Education Association teacher union and the CCEA's non-profit foundation.

Responding to the request to see the relevant consulting contracts, district staff informed NPRI, "When documents are stored in electronic format all the documents are lumped together… Therefore we actually have to print files to sift out the confidential records to develop a Public viewing file." Thus, the Institute's request for public viewing of documents was unilaterally transformed by the district into a request for copies of documents, for which the district can then charge.

In this case, to review public documents, the district sought to charge $106. NPRI informed the school district that the Institute believed "the district is in violation of the Nevada Public Records Act by seeking to impose fees for the inspection of public contracts."

One major irony here is that CCSD has a large communications department that employs four public information specialists to facilitate public and departmental information for the community and staff. Yet the district argues that it must charge the public fees for utilizing public employees to retrieve the public's documents from the public's computer system. That new $50 million publicly funded Enterprise Resource Planning system, the district explains, does not house public documents in a manner accessible and open to the public as required by public law.

Fees, however, are not the only strategies employed by CCSD to discourage oversight.  For public information inquiries from certain quarters, the district erects additional hurdles. Recently, two different NPRI researchers, making unrelated inquiries at different times, were informed that the district would not answer any questions from them over the phone because of what a CCSD communications specialist called "the history of litigation between your firm and the school district." Any requests for school-district information, he said, would have to be submitted in writing, through him.

In actuality, there is no history of litigation between NPRI and the school district. While the American Civil Liberties Union last year did sue the school district on behalf of this researcher, the suit preceded any association of this private citizen with NPRI, and NPRI was not a party to that suit.

Is the district simply seeking to obstruct anyone seeking information? Recently, it justified its new ban on NPRI-researcher telephone inquiries by saying it had classified the Institute as "a quasi-media outlet."

When a government—any government—shrouds its doings from citizen oversight by imposing public access fees upon some and not others, filtering some requests but not others through top administrators, and requiring written inquiries by some but not others, the natural question is: What does it have to hide?

Are the CCSD fees and filtering systems really there to recoup costs? Or is the district purposefully creating disincentives for news reporters, insightful researchers and civic-minded citizens?

The Clark County School District's practices do thwart public oversight—and that fosters an environment ripe for abuse and corruption.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.