The Legislature took big steps forward this year in improving public access to government functions and records.
But without fail, the government entities that are supposed to follow state laws mandating transparency make sure the cause of openness takes two steps back.
Last week, the Review-Journal’s Ed Vogel wrote an overview of some of the open government legislation that takes effect this year. Effective July 1, state agencies and local governments must put on their meeting agendas the name of someone who can help residents obtain supporting documents. By Oct. 1, all state agencies must appoint “records officials” whose jobs include helping the public obtain records. By Jan. 1, the state must have a website up and running that lists all scheduled public meetings and the agendas of every state agency and board. By July 1, 2014, local governments must launch similar websites. And, thanks to another new law, governments can charge no more than 50 cents per page for those records.
Having such statutes in force on top of the state’s liberal public records law is important. Too often, residents can be denied records of government business via the bureaucratic runaround, bounced from person to person, department to department, until they simply give up. Strong public records laws give interested taxpayers access to the same information their elected officials consider before casting votes on everything from ordinances to contracts to zoning and licensing decisions.
But too often, governments are too happy to keep important information from the public. And if governments won’t provide records to media outlets or organizations that have experience navigating the records request process and that understand the law, common citizens don’t stand a chance.
Take the Clark County School District. It recently reached an agreement with the Clark County Education Association — the local teachers union — on a contract for the current school year, ending a years-long run of impasses decided by arbitrators. But the district won’t release the terms of that contract. It’s confidential until the union and the School Board vote on it.
Considering personnel costs consume the lion’s share of the school district’s operating budget, and considering the district’s finances are tight, the public should have the ability to review the contract and tell their elected trustees whether it’s worth supporting or not. Will automatic pay raises for seniority and professional development be restored, or will salaries be frozen? Will teachers have furloughs? We won’t know before trustees vote. That’s not transparent or open. That’s a closed process. We’re stuck with a bill we can’t see until it’s approved later this week? That’s unacceptable.
Of course, the contract negotiations were closed to the public as well. Opening those bargaining sessions to the public would go a long way toward giving taxpayers a say in how most of their money is spent. The fact that unions passionately oppose such a reform is instructive in how important secrecy is to winning their demands.
Transparency gives legitimacy to governments and improves public confidence in the integrity of their elected and appointed boards. The more openness, the better.