Sunday marked the start of Sunshine Week, seven days dedicated to open government and raising public awareness about the importance of access to public information.
You pay for your governments. You have a right to see how they function and know what they do with your money.
Sunshine Week is a big deal for the press, but government is supposed to be transparent for everyone, not just those who have a media business behind them. 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.”
“By any person.” That means a well-known journalist and an unknown taxpayer should fare the same when they contact a government agency and ask for records related to a lawsuit or an expenditure. But it doesn’t always work that way. Too often, government officials treat public records as proprietary records. They believe it’s their job to keep records secret. Secrecy hides abuses and discourages accountability. Sunshine, on the other hand, gives governments legitimacy.
Some Nevada governments are better than others when it comes to releasing public information. But true transparency isn’t achieved by releasing only what certain members of the press and the public request. A genuinely open government makes important records available for inspection without being asked, allowing taxpayers to examine them at a time of their choosing — even on weekends.
Among Southern Nevada governments, the transparency standard has been set by the city of Las Vegas. The city’s website, www.lasvegasnevada.gov, provides a link on the far right column of the home page called “Transparent Las Vegas.” It has a green dollar sign in the middle. Taxpayers will find a variety of important financial reports, broken down by department, as well as a list of employees and their salaries. Budgets and reports on quarterly disbursements are also available. Other local governments should follow the city’s lead.
The standard for opaqueness, on the other hand, has been set by the Public Employees Retirement System of Nevada. For years, the agency that oversees the state’s pension plan refused to tell taxpayers what retired government workers were being paid. It was a significant issue because the pension system is underfunded by billions of dollars, and taxpayers are on the hook for promised benefits that can’t be paid. The Reno Gazette-Journal successfully sued to compel the release of pension data, but PERS still hasn’t fully complied with a Nevada Supreme Court order to be transparent. The agency is clinging to its culture of secrecy, making various excuses for not releasing retiree data, to the detriment of the public interest.
An agency that won’t release public records has something to hide. Sunshine Week is a reminder to taxpayers and governments alike that transparency has the high ground. The public’s business must be made public.