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Cities, county violated ‘spirit’ of open meeting law when councilmember denied in-person attendance


A joint meeting with the cities of Reno, Sparks and Washoe County last year was determined not to have technically violated Nevada’s open meeting law, according to the Attorney General’s office.

But the spirit of openness was violated, the AG noted, because an elected official was told she could not attend the meeting in person after she showed up in person.

Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus filed an open meeting law complaint with the AG’s office in July after the meeting and after Washoe County Manager Eric Brown’s assistant told Brekhus she could not attend the meeting in person.

Public commenters and county staff were present in the meeting while elected officials attended via Zoom.

Brekhus went to the meeting at the Washoe County commission chambers despite the invitation to local elected officials saying it would be a virtual meeting. 

The meeting agenda, however, indicated officials “may attend and participate by remote technology system.”

An email from Brown’s assistant, Erick Willrich, sent to elected officials and staff two days before the July 22 meeting – and two days after an agenda with the Washoe County Commission chambers listed as the meeting venue – stated, “We have planned a concurrent VIRTUAL meeting including Washoe County, Cities of Reno, and Sparks, with a single point of public comment hosted at the Washoe County Chambers…”

Brekhus said she had asked Willrich, who was in commission chambers during the meeting, if she could stay in the chambers to participate in the meeting. 

“He answered no,” she wrote. “I was in a confused state, because I did not understand how a chamber could be partially filled with staff and some members of the public for a meeting of a governing board but I, a member of that governing board, could not participate in the meeting if I remained in the meeting chambers.” 

The AG’s office concluded that was not a “technical violation of the [open meeting law]” but it did violate the spirit of openness.

“The law was not intended to require public bodies to allow their members to participate electronically,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Rosalie Bordelove wrote. “However, it was acknowledged that the law allows for electronic participation by public body members.

“As the OML does not address how a member is permitted to attend by the rest of the public body, but specifically allows for electronic participation by members, the OAG cannot find a technical violation of the letter of the law in this instance,” she added.

Bordelove said, however, that public access and participation should be protected to conduct the people’s business. 

“As such, preventing a public body member who desires to attend a public meeting in person with his or her constituents from attending the physical location while performing his or her duties runs contrary to that spirit and intent,” she added.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
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 in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR.