It's all in a day's work


Newspapers have long been champions of truth, justice and fairness -- shining a beacon in the dark corners, unmasking villains, righting wrongs and comforting the downtrodden.

Why, I recall the time more than three decades ago when I -- the mild-mannered editor of a small North Texas daily -- discovered that the state constitutional mandate that taxes "shall be equal and uniform" was being blatantly ignored by the county assessor. While the property tax rolls valued new homes and recently purchased land at the current market value, vast land holdings of wealthy ranchers and oil barons had not been re-evaluated since the 1930s, thus causing newcomers to bear an inequitable share of the tax burden.

My stalwart news exposes and caustic editorials on the topic were greeted with an immediate, ear-popping ... well, yawn.

The power brokers liked things just the way they were and the newcomers were too busy working and commuting to the big city they'd fled to avoid paying even higher property taxes.

It's sort of like the obviously unconstitutional two-tiered property tax cap enacted in the previous legislative session -- residential property tax hikes are capped at 3 percent a year, but commercial property at 8 percent. Yet nobody dares challenge it lest the alternative turn out to be worse. We all know it. It was in all the papers. But no one dares poke the hornets' nest.

So, it is gratifying to see that some things exposed by the Review-Journal of late are actually being addressed, though it is too early to tell whether the outcome will be any better than the status quo.

In February, special projects reporter Frank Geary revealed that more than 100 Clark County District Court civil cases had been utterly concealed from public view and all the participants gagged. It was unknown what judge sealed the cases or why.

Even though state law clearly states that, "The sitting of every court of justice shall be public except as otherwise provided by law," and there is no law "providing" such secrecy, certain judges took it upon themselves to blindfold the voters and taxpayers, claiming an "inherent right" to seal cases.

The eye-opening series of articles has prompted both the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court to begin drafting strict new rules for when and how aspects of civil cases might be closed.

An Assembly bill passed out of committee this past week would prohibit judges from sealing records unless a "preponderance of the evidence" shows that sealing is in the best interest of the public. It also would require the judge to conduct a public hearing before sealing information.

On a separate track, Chief Justice Bill Maupin created a commission to address the issue. "The commission will examine a number of issues involving access to court records and the need to balance public access with critical private interest," Justice Maupin said.

It will be interesting to see if the two initiatives result in a constitutional clash. Over the years Nevada judges have taken the phrase "separation of powers" to mean total autonomy for themselves, instead of a system of "checks and balances."

Another newspaper series, this one from special projects reporter Alan Maimon, revealed problems with how the county courts contract with certain attorneys to defend indigents. This, too, prompted action.

A five-judge committee is already making recommendations to change the 20-year-old system, which has been wrought with inequities for defendants and taxpayers alike.

Just this past week columnist John L. Smith's revelations that volunteer firefighters over the age of 55 were denied state insurance coverage for heart attacks have prompted attention in Carson City.

After stories by City Hall reporter David McGrath Schwartz on a deal to turn a golf course next to a sewer plant into a new subdivision, the city reversed itself, the attorney general investigated and the city is now changing its procedures in an effort to make sure land transactions benefit the public.

After a team of Review-Journal reporters found that a group of companies, all headed up by one man, were swapping land with the county airport and then selling the acquired land within days for millions in profits, both the state and the county ordered changes in how government-owned property would be handled.

All in a day's work for our intrepid reporters in their never-ending quest for interesting stories that make a difference in our community.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and public access to government records and meetings. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.

 

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