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Editorial: Washoe County misses the mark on proposed changes to state laws

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Unless you are new around here, it’s likely you aren’t aware of the depth of nerdiness our team has when it comes to public records. We file a fair share of public records requests but not to be frivolous or create busy work.

We do so to report on things of public concern, such as the shenanigans of elected and appointed officials. So when someone wants to have legislators open up Nevada’s Public Records Act to make a few changes, such as refining public access to medical examiner records, our ears perk up, especially when those people are government employees claiming to stand on the side of transparency.

In this case, the county wants to change state law to account for its out-of-date interpretation of whether autopsy reports are public records. As our reports last week show, a 2020 Nevada Supreme Court decision determined that such reports are public records, and some information in the reports can be redacted. However, the county maintains there needs to be more clarity about this because the county still interprets these reports as confidential.

“Autopsy and examination reports are not considered to be public records in the vast majority of cases per a recent Nevada Supreme Court decision,” Washoe County Medical Examiner’s FAQ website falsely claimed through Friday. County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale on Friday had the false statement on the county’s webpage removed after being contacted by This Is Reno. The webpage still implies autopsy reports are not public records, however.

The 2020 Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner versus Las Vegas Review-Journal decision clearly states: “We conclude that the Coroner’s Office has not demonstrated that [state law] or any other authority authorizes it to withhold juvenile autopsy reports in their entirety in its response to public records requests. To the extent that the requested records may contain private information or confidential medical information, we remand for the district to evaluate…the scope of information that should be redacted from the reports.”

Given that state court opinion is clear as day, the problem here resides with the county, which suggests the proper avenue to address county problems is to change county code, not state law. 

We’ve never met a government employee espousing tje virtues of transparency actually to come out on the side of transparency, but that’s precisely what Washoe County staff claim they are doing here. We suggest the starting place is tidying up the county’s erroneous interpretation of case law, which the medical examiner said causes them to consult with legal counsel before releasing autopsy reports. 

More bizarre, county commissioners didn’t even discuss one of the changes to state law the county would like to see – a change that would bar access to autopsy reports while cases are still being investigated. They gleefully approved pursuing this change to Nevada law anyway.

“We will be closely watching this proposal to ensure it doesn’t end up doing the opposite and making it harder for everyday Nevadans to exercise their right to access these public records,” Michelle Rindels with Nevada’s Open Government Coalition told us in response to the county’s request to change state laws.

We’ll be watching too.

-Bob Conrad and Kristen Hackbarth

ThisIsReno
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