As the Legislature grinds its way down to sine die in a couple of weeks, there are still some pending bills that could affect your ability and that of the press to see just what our elected and appointed officials are up to by being able to access public records.
Senate Bill 287 would put some teeth in the current Nevada public records law, which requires that all public records and books, except those specifically exempted as confidential by law, must be open for inspection and copying. Despite the clear language saying the law should be liberally interpreted various agencies have manufactured excuses for not complying or simply flouted the law and basically said: If you want it, sue us.
Should SB287 become law, if a court determines a governmental entity or the person making the decision on behalf of the governmental entity wrongly denies a records request, the requester may be awarded a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 or more than $250,000 per offense from the agency or the responsible party or both.
Some lawmakers and public officials, of course, are blanching at the $250,000 threat, but there should be room for compromise.
Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, recently commented, “SB287 represents a real opportunity to enact public-records reform in Nevada. Among many other helpful provisions, SB287 would establish civil penalties for government officials who fail to comply with the Public Records Act … limit the ability of local governments and state agencies to charge excessive fees for records requests; and require government workers to help requesters focus their requests to get the information they are seeking.”
Karpel noted the press association and other members of the newly formed Right to Know Nevada testified in support of the bill in early April during a Senate Government Affairs Committee meeting.
“An army of government lobbyists lined up to testify against it,” Karpel said but the bill remains extant and is being shepherded by lawmakers sympathetic to the cause.
He said the press association is participating in a working group, which includes both supporters and opponents of the bill, which is trying to address concerns raised during the hearing.
Though opponents have attempted to gut the bill and add sweeping exemptions to the public records law, Karpel said, “Fortunately, there is a real desire among many lawmakers to pass a public records bill this session. That includes Gov. (Steve) Sisolak, who commented on his support for government transparency and the need to ensure there are ‘repercussions’ for foot-dragging state agencies in (a) recent interview with the (Las Vegas) Review Journal. So we’re hopeful we can get SB287 to the finish line before the session ends in June.”
On the obverse side of the coin is Senate Bill 224, which would exempt from the public records law the names of those who are drawing taxpayer funded pensions from the Public Employees’ Retirement System.
SB224 narrowly passed in the state Senate a couple of weeks ago on a vote of 11-10 with two Democrats joining all eight Republicans in opposing it.
State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, a Eureka Republican, said he opposed the bill because the pensions are taxpayer funded. “The people who are paying those funds have the right to know the name and the amount,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “I believe the public does have the right to know who it is and how much they are benefiting.”
Proponents of the bill have argued pensioners could be affected by identity theft, though they’ve not sighted a single instance of this occurring. Opponents argue the release of the names can help detect abuse of the system.
A tip to California’s fraud hotline once resulted in its pension system recovering more than $200,000. In a statement the California public employee pension system praised “the great value of the public’s assistance in CalPERS’ efforts to protect the state pension system from fraud, waste, and abuse.”
In another case a Los Angeles television station discovered that a police officer who was drawing a disability pension from one city was working full-time as a police officer for another agency.
These abuses will be impossible to detect should SB224 pass and become law. — TM