NPRI testimony on AB 159

Victor Joecks

Yesterday, NPRI’s Karen Gray, who has a vast amount of experience requesting public records, offered the following testimony on AB 159, which would revise provisions relating to public records and appears to succinctly eliminate the significant obstacles government entities often hurl at members of the public who request public records. Karen previously blogged on AB 159 here.

Good morning Madame Chairwoman and Members of the Committee,

My name is Karen Gray and I am an education researcher with the Nevada Policy Research Institute. I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak regarding Assembly Bill 159.

Assembly Bill 159, a bill in simple in form, could have tremendous impact on government transparency in Nevada. And, while NPRI remains neutral on AB 159, I would like to take a few minutes to share some of my experiences as a person who frequently makes public records’ requests to state and local governments as well as smaller public bodies.

As a researcher, accessing public records can be a weekly, if not a near-daily activity. Nevada law requires public records not otherwise declared confidential by law to be open to inspection at all times during business hours. However, in practical application, it is rarely the case that one can simply walk into an agency, request inspection and then sift through a stack of records.

Sections I and III

While I personally have never had an agency require me to make my own copies of public records, as indicated in Section I of AB 159, I have been denied access to public records because the records contained confidential information or were maintained among other documents with confidential information. I have also been denied inspection of public records simply because the records were housed on a computer system.

However, the more typical response from an government agency is to charge a large fee to create a public viewing file.

In one such instance, the public records I sought were maintained on a computer system–which is becoming more standard in practice. It was the policy of this particular agency to prohibit public access to its proprietary computer system. As such, NPRI was imposed fees of $106 for inspection of the records. Here’s how the agency explained the charges: “When documents are stored in electronic format all the documents are lumped together, albeit in different locations….. Therefore we actually have to print files to sift out the confidential records to develop a Public viewing file.”

In another situation, ongoing since August 2010, I was informed the records I seek are “not readily available in the public domain.” These records are maintained in electronic format, are housed among hundreds of other documents containing confidential information and themselves contain confidential information. As such, NPRI has been assessed $560 for the redaction of confidential information in order to access the otherwise open portions of the documents.

Section II

Since NRS 239.0107, the statute section II of AB 159 seeks to clarify, currently states the statute should not be construed to prohibit oral requests, further clarification of this fact would seem unnecessary.

However, it was just six weeks ago, that a citizen made a public record’s request seeking budget and expense records during a public meeting. The public body’s president informed that person that she “must” put her request in writing. The woman left the meeting ill-informed.

Later that same evening, I, too, made a public record’s request on the record. Like the woman earlier, I, was also informed that I “must” put my request in writing. It was not until several days later that the public body agreed I could make a verbal request for records.

That same week, in another unrelated situation with this same agency, although not the governing body, I was forewarned by top level officials that public records requests made verbally were not subject to the timelines and responses afforded written requests under NRS 239.0107.

Section V

As a researcher, I often review minutes and recordings of public meetings. And while many public bodies are moving to put these records online, not everyone has access to the internet, or a computer for that matter. For those people, accessing minutes and meeting recordings can be costly. I have been charged as much as $1 a page for meeting minutes. I have also been charged anywhere from $5 to $10 a CD for meeting recordings. These charges did not occur years in the past, but rather, just in the past 6-8 months.

Section VII

Lastly, I want to share an experience that may be relevant to section VII.

About one year ago, I was researching several years worth of public meeting agendas and minutes. This research took place in a certain division in the county clerk’s office. While I wasn’t charged a fee for staff to locate the records, I was advised of fees when I sought to scan some of the documents.

I was informed that I would be charged $1.00 per each page I copied. To clarify the situation: I was sitting alone in a viewing room, searching through stacks of meeting minutes. As I located records pertinent to my research, I scanned them into my laptop with my own equipment. For this, I was to be charged $1.00 for each page I scanned.

This happened on three separate occasions in this office. However, in each instance, after insisting on a written estimate of costs, I was eventually allowed to scan the records without charge.

In closing, I just want to, once again, thank the Committee for allowing me to share a few of my experiences.

No action was taken yesterday by the committee, Assembly Goverment Affairs, which heard the bill.