Week in Review: closed government

Andy Matthews

Every week, NPRI President Andy Matthews writes a column for NPRI's week-in-review email. If you are not getting our emails, which contain our latest commentaries and news stories, you can sign up here to receive them.

It’s always nice when NPRI and the ACLU can agree on something.

Unfortunately, on the occasions when this happens, it usually means the government is doing something really, really bad.

And this time is no exception.

Earlier this week, our executive vice president, Victor Joecks, testified in Carson City against the bill the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial board called the “Worst Bill of 2015.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. That must be an exaggeration.

But have you read SB28?

If passed, this bill would make public records so expensive to obtain that government effectively wouldn’t have to release the information it doesn’t want the public to see. Under SB28, government agencies could charge for public-records requests as soon as an employee has spent just 30 minutes working on the request.

It gets worse.

The bill would also allow government agencies to charge for records that are more than 25 pages long, regardless of how long it takes an employee to compile the record, and regardless of whether that record is provided electronically or in print. Originally, the Nevada League of Cities & Municipalities proposed to attach a 50-cents-per-page charge for records more than 25 pages long — even if emailed to the requester — but said on Wednesday it would lower the proposed fee to 25 cents per page.

At 50 cents or 25, the idea is still to close the doors to the public, not open them.

During Wednesday’s hearing, numerous government officials spoke out in favor of the bill, one even saying SB28 is needed to prevent disgruntled former employees from abusing public-records requests as a means of extorting money from cities. Many of them claimed the bill really has nothing to do with limiting transparency (which they said they’re all for), but listening to the diverse collection of the bill’s opponents revealed its dangerous nature.

Take the testimony of Stanton Tang, the news director for KOLO 8 News. He brought with him bags full of the public records his outlet obtained following the Sparks Middle School shooting. The records that allowed his reporters to tell a very important story to the public may never have been accessible under the costs that would be imposed by SB28.

Barry Smith, the executive director of the Nevada Press Association, pointed to the Review-Journal’s award-winning exposé on police shootings as evidence that public-records requests — the very requests that would effectively be made impossible by the passage of SB28 — serve the public good. He went on to note that approximately 94 percent of public-records requests come not from the media but from individual citizens.

Our own Karen Gray is a testament to that. Before coming to work as a researcher and reporter at the Institute’s Nevada Journal, Karen was a concerned parent trying to keep watch on the Clark County School District, which refused to provide her access to public records until a judge ordered the district to comply. SB28 would give the district the ability to hold such records hostage.

Then of course there’s the ACLU of Nevada, an organization that doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with us here at NPRI but has nevertheless been a consistent and laudable proponent of government transparency.

And let’s not forget the thousands of people who visit TransparentNevada.com each year and benefit as a result of government agencies across the state complying with the Nevada Public Records Act and providing employee-compensation information so citizens can understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

I can only imagine that at 50 cents a page — or even 25 cents — such efforts to keep Nevada government open and accountable to the people who fund it wouldn’t be possible.

Government agencies in Nevada are already allowed to charge for records requests that require an extraordinary use of staff time, such as those filed to abuse the system or for commercial purposes. The result of SB28 would be to give government agencies more leeway in choosing which information it will make public. And we’ve seen plenty of examples demonstrating that politicians, left to their own devices, seldom err on the side of openness. (Once again, I’m looking at you, Hillary Clinton.)

Listening to testimony Wednesday by government officials bemoaning the sometimes-difficult task of answering to the public made me wonder how many of them understand that they work for us, the taxpayers.

A transparent government is an accountable government. Let’s make sure Nevada government stays accountable to the people it exists to serve.

Until next time,

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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