Putting sunshine to the test

Yesterday was National Freedom of Information Day, marking the end of Sunshine Week, the annual campaign to educate the public about the importance of access to government and public information. It’s a big deal for the press, because our ability to report and investigate the functions of government depends on access to meetings and records.

It’s a big deal for you, especially, because you pay for every government salary, computer, office and building. Government business is your business, and by law, you must be able to check up on how your tax dollars are spent.

Unfortunately, too often government functionaries don’t see it that way. They see public information as their information. And even though the law is on your side, they have the power to play gatekeeper and deny you access to that information. It’s this kind of secrecy that contributes to government abuses and an overall lack of accountability within the public sector.

Freedom of information is like any other freedom — you use it or you lose it. So in honor of Sunshine Week, I put that freedom to the test — and had mixed results.

I request public records all the time as a journalist. And most every government agency has at least one public information officer to handle such requests and track down the records. But average citizens who don’t have the resources of a media company behind them can fare much differently, even though they shouldn’t. Nevada’s public records law is clear: “All public books and public records of a governmental entity, the contents of which are not otherwise declared by law to be confidential, must be open at all times during office hours to inspection by any person.” In other words, all government records are assumed to be open, and agencies must cite a specific statute if they refuse to make any records public.

So I played the part of average citizen and went about searching for run-of-the-mill criminal records.

The Clark County District Court website (www.clarkcountycourts.us) is a great resource. You can search criminal and civil records in a variety of ways to get basic case information. I found an adjudicated criminal case and went to the county clerk’s office to get the details.

Every single person in the clerk’s office was courteous, helpful and professional, getting me set up on a computer, showing me the basics in examining a case file and requesting any printouts. No one asked me why I wanted the information. I looked through the file, including the arrest report, the criminal complaint and judgment of conviction. Every step of the process was there, no redactions. I requested a printout of the file, handed over a few bucks and was on my way.

So imagine my surprise in learning that a lower court — Las Vegas Municipal Court — was far more stingy with records of less-serious offenses.

I went to an arrest records website, www.whosarrested.com, and found a misdemeanor criminal case. I took that information to the first floor of the Regional Justice Center and got a printout of the case number and case history, outlining the Municipal Court record from arrest to case closure. No problem there.

However, obtaining the records of the case was not a matter of logging onto a computer. I had to request it from the city attorney’s office. And when I went upstairs to the visitors’ window to ask for it, I was asked why I wanted it — why I want it doesn’t matter because it’s a public record — and was rejected. If I wanted the arrest report, I was told I would have to ask the Metropolitan Police Department for it.

Down the street at Metro’s new headquarters on Martin Luther King Boulevard, I went to the records bureau and asked for the arrest report. I was asked why I wanted the report, and if I were a lawyer or with an insurance company. I said, “I’m just a citizen who wants to examine public information.” And I was rejected, told that Metro doesn’t hand out arrest reports to any person off the street. “Why can I access any arrest report for a gross misdemeanor or felony case at the county clerk’s office, but I can’t get a misdemeanor arrest report here?” I asked. As Joe Citizen, I was at a dead end.

So I put on my reporter’s hat and talked to Las Vegas police spokesman Bill Cassell. I asked for the arrest report. He asked me why I was interested in a misdemeanor case. “That shouldn’t matter,” I said. “It’s a public record.” Again, I asked why I could access untold thousands of arrest reports at the county clerk’s office yet get nothing from police. Cassell responded, “We don’t release arrest reports. They can do a lot of damage to investigations and witnesses.” To the police, public records aren’t public.

I finally was able to get that misdemeanor case file — with some redactions — but only because city spokesman and former journalist Jace Radke went to bat for me. He reminded the city attorney’s office that it couldn’t simply reject a records request, that it had to cite a statute that declared the record confidential.

But the office misapplied the law — again — in releasing the file. It used the balancing test created by the Nevada Supreme Court in the 1990 court case Donrey v. Bradshaw, weighing the public interest in disclosure against the interest in nondisclosure, deciding there was no harm in me seeing that report. That balancing test is for the courts to use in deciding whether a confidential document should be made public. The test is not for government agencies to use in deciding whether to keep public records secret.

There’s no shortage of sunshine in Southern Nevada, with spring officially arriving Wednesday. But when it comes to sunshine in government, it’s still very much a work in progress.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.