The gaggle of lobbyists and government officials who bemoaned tightening up Nevada’s Public Records Act on Wednesday was bewildering. Not so much for their opposition, which is to be expected. Indeed, public records requests can be burdensome. But the government responses blatantly ignored the wanton abuse of the act detailed by those speaking in
Reno’s City Clerk said that the city has no paid staff to deal with public records. The law mandates, however, that certain state agencies have a designated records officer. A good practice is that all public entities have a records officer.
City Clerk Ashley Turney noted that the responsibility falls on employees as “other duties as assigned.”
That’s how it should be. Public employees who create and retain public records — which is just about all of them — have a responsibility to treat stewardship of official records as a part of their job.
Those employees need to be better trained, which would alleviate some of those burdens cited by those in opposition to strengthening the Nevada Public Records Act.
Some entities, like Washoe County School District, create their own problems in this regard. Their PR people have refused to answer questions and instead say that a public records request needs to be filed. The requests are frequently denied.
Records Act is Repeatedly Violated
What was most striking is that for the government employees and their lobbyists testifying against the tighter standards — standards that include increasing fines and punishments against bureaucrats who flaunt the law — is how self-serving they came across.
Preceding the opposition to the changes were tales of woe in dealing with agencies who regularly pretend like laws don’t apply to them. Washoe County School District and Clark County School District were noted as chief offenders. Las Vegas Metro Police also got called out.
One individual seeking records in rural counties was told, simply, “We do things differently in the rurals.”
No records for him — unless he has the resources to litigate. That point was raised over and over: The Nevada Public Records Act incentives government misdeeds at the expense of the people.
How the Washoe County School District Responds to Records Requests, Part 1
While opponents cited “nuisance filers” creating more work for government employees, the fact is the abuse of records laws by government officials is the norm, not the other way around, as much as the lobbyists tried to characterize the problem as being the opposite.
Common people and the news media are disadvantaged under the current records act, often for simply trying to shine a light on how public dollars are actually being spent.
While opponents cited burden, privacy, belligerent records requests, and lack of resources, they conveniently ignored their own ability to simply abuse the act with little consequence unless a filer has an attorney on retainer and is willing to take an agency to court, sometimes for years at a time.
Bureaucratic abuse of the Nevada Public Records Act is legion. A political subdivision in Nevada gets sued or slapped down for violating the law just about monthly.
The law, true, is confusing and problematic as it is. The bill as it stands could benefit from some tweaking.
How the Washoe County School District Responds to Records Requests, Part 2
Sparks, Reno, and Washoe County each testified in opposition to the bill. After Wednesday’s hearing, I called council members and Mayor Hillary Schieve about the city’s opposition to strengthening the public records act.
Council member Jenny Brekhus said that the city council has no position on the bill because there has not been a quorum at the council’s legislative meetings.
“The direction must have come from the City Manager,” she said. “I’m in favor of the most transparency and a strong public records policy. I’m a little surprised that we would come out against it. I do know records requests have increased dramatically, [but] I’m advocating more transparency.”
Schieve said she was generally supportive of the bill, with reservations.
“I support any bill that supports transparency but holding people accountable directly makes me nervous,” she said.
Schieve expressed concerns with agencies such as the Reno Police Department having burdensome fees.
“Records should be affordable and accessible for citizens,” she said.
Schieve also said she will push for lowering the city’s public records fees and making fee waivers more transparent.
It’s critical to note that the bill is being championed by an unlikely bi-partisan group, Right To Know Nevada, and Democratic and Republican legislators.
The bill deserves to pass with some modifications. For too long the incentive for governments to abuse the act has been greater than the incentive to follow it.
What is most ironic is that the people who rely on public information to be readily available and transparent form our citizen legislature and other elected bodies.
Without records being accessible and public, how else will our elected officials make fully informed decisions?
Testimony in Favor of SB287
Disclosure: I spoke in favor of the bill, SB287. Here’s my statement to the Senate Committee on Government Affairs.
Chairman Parks and members of the committee:
Thank you for holding this hearing. My name is Bob Conrad, and I run a news website called This Is Reno. We’ve been publishing for nearly ten years. Just over four years ago I left state service to commit more of my time to
providingReno with a different news source.
I was employed with the State at three different agencies where I was the designated records officer. I helped to develop public records policies to be in accordance with the law. I took public records very seriously, including training staff and promptly replying to all records requests.
I am speaking in support of SB287. Since 2015, I’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on public records, as well as attorney fees, in order to tell stories that otherwise were not going to be told.
One such story is Tesla selling its tax credits to the MGM. While most are now aware of that story, published in 2016, what you may not know is that I broke that story but only after severe anguish in dealing with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
It all started because the communications director of GOED at the time refused to answer questions about transferrable tax credits. I then ordered public records seeking answers. It wasn’t until after arguing with the agency, hiring legal counsel (thank you, Stephanie Rice, Winter Street Law Group), and waiting for months did GOED finally produce all of the documents requested.
Because of that story, which was picked up by national media, an audit was requested of Tesla’s deal with the state, and now, I understand, transferrable tax credits are getting new consideration by this body.
I can provide many similar examples from other government agencies that stall, deny, force requesters to hire legal counsel, and cite astronomical fee estimates to subvert the Nevada Public Records Act.
I have found that many, if not most, public agencies use the Act to develop excuses for NOT giving the public its records. I’ve seen this from the Governor’s Office under Brian Sandoval to the Nevada System of Higher Education’s institutions. (UNR / TMCC)
The Washoe County School District, in particular, cites relevant Nevada public records case law to repeatedly deny records requests. The irony is that the case law they cite actually finds in favor of open records.
I have filed numerous records orders with the school district, and most all have come back as denied or partially denied. One was even ignored for nearly a year, and I was told that since it wasn’t filed with the district’s legal office, they weren’t going to consider it a valid records request. Another request was challenged because a staff member said it would make somebody feel uncomfortable.
The only way it seems possible to get records from the school district is to hire an attorney or repeatedly fight against them. This is an ongoing problem, and my only option at this point seems to be litigation.
In short, the most critical reason this legislation is necessary is
because you, our legislators, rely on those records to make decisions based on accurate information and so that we are all fully informed about how public dollars are being spent.
Thank you for your time.
Bob Conrad, Ph.D.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.