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Delays getting records means crucial virus questions go unanswered

Did Nevada have the required amount of personal protective gear stockpiled for the COVID-19 pandemic? Was the state’s emergency plan sufficient? Were prisons well-equipped for virus testing?

The answers are still unknown as Review-Journal journalists are told to wait weeks, sometime months, to receive key public records from state officials.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has touted open government as a crucial aspect to the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. “You deserve transparency,” he proclaimed during an April 8 news conference, a statement reflecting the Nevada Public Records Act’s promise of open access to most government documents.

But records vital to evaluating how Sisolak’s administration and state agencies have navigated the unprecedented emergency have proved difficult to obtain.

Even a simple request for daily reports on hospital capacity made in early April, which would have spanned only a few pages at the time, was met with a response from a senior policy analyst in Sisolak’s office to wait “eight to 10 weeks” to receive the record.

The state produced copies of the Nevada Hospital Association reports in its possession on Thursday, more than 50 days after the request was submitted and almost a month after a local government organization provided them to the newspaper.

Nevada Open Government Coalition President Patrick File called the slow release of records a failing of the partnership between government and the press to inform the state’s residents. Last month, the nonpartisan coalition called for state and local agencies to stop withholding crucial information about Nevada’s COVID-19 response.

“We’re counting on the government to gather information and make smart decisions to keep us safe,” File said Thursday. “Understanding how the government is gathering information and acting on it is tremendously important for the public to know about.”

Among the requested documents that state agencies have delayed in producing or denied access to are the following:

■ Emergency management plans related to disease outbreaks or widespread health emergencies. Officials took more than 40 days to deny the request.

■ Documents tracking testing of prison inmates and staff for COVID-19. Denied by officials after 13 days.

■ Written communications among top prison officials about COVID-19 testing. Officials said they would respond “in the next 45 days.”

■ Records related to Nevada’s government stockpile of personal protective gear for medical workers. Officials said it will take “eight to ten weeks or longer” to compile the documents.

Sisolak has said state agencies are “inundated” with records requests about the coronavirus outbreak. On Friday, his office maintained the state was working diligently to complete requests, many of which required “intensive labor” and time to fulfill.

Communications director Meghin Delaney also pointed to initiatives to inform Nevadans. Those include daily reports tracking the coronavirus’s spread, updates on the state’s response and a website with updating data on the outbreak.

“The governor has committed to being honest and transparent with Nevadans,” Delaney said. “His action and the actions of his team reflect that commitment.”

Time frames unclear

State officials have been unclear about when records will be released in some cases.

In April, a Nevada Department of Health and Human Services official said that it could take two months to either produce documents about the state’s PPE stockpile or provide “a reasonable time frame of when a response can be made to your request.”

Delaney said that officials’ requests for additional time to produce records falls within state law, but Review-Journal general counsel Ben Lipman contended that officials’ more open-ended responses did not.

“Simply saying, ‘We’ll get back to you later’ violates the Nevada Public Records Act,” he said. “It also makes it impossible for the news organization to provide the public with timely information the public needs.”

Open government advocates say the state’s delays seem unreasonable, even during the outbreak.

“It’s not like it’s a huge surprise they’re receiving requests for information about PPE and testing of inmates in correctional facilities,” Nevada Press Association Executive Director Richard Karpel said. “These are huge national stories with critical local implications.”

While Nevada has not suspended or changed its public records laws — actions taken by other states — state officials here have used a recent executive order to block access to records.

The Nevada Department of Public Safety refused to make public the state’s emergency management plans related to disease outbreaks, citing an executive order signed by Sisolak in February.

But the order was issued pursuant to a state law that covers records pertaining to “an act of terrorism.” The Review-Journal is contesting the state’s decision.

“It is shocking that the government would even attempt to claim it can withhold records related to the coronavirus pandemic based on a law that deals with terrorist attacks,” Lipman said.

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Davidson is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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