Henderson Mayor Debra March is making good on her promise to make city operations more open and accessible.
The first step in that process is to make public records requests less expensive.
“(This is) something I see as another way to promote transparency,” March said during the Oct. 3 City Council meeting. “This is not something that state law requires, so we would be doing this for the benefit of the public by our own choice.”
UNLV associate professor of history Michael Green said the changes could be in response to community outcry that the city does not keep the public properly informed. Officials are known for being tight-lipped, most recently regarding the “separation” of former Police Chief Patrick Moers and Deputy Chief Bobby Long.
“I think Henderson is reacting to some questions raised in recent months,” Green said. “That seems to be the case here, without knowing what is happening in meetings or behind closed doors. It’s heartening when the government is responsive to controversy or questions. It doesn’t necessarily mean anyone did anything wrong. It just means the people involved here are conscious of what’s going on around them. That’s a good thing.”
Green said unless there’s a scandal or something goes wrong, it’s hard to gauge how much of an impact such changes will make in the city.
Unknown change in cost
The ordinance to reduce public records fees went into effect Friday and requires city management to have a provision that allows charges for copies of records to be waived.
For records requests that require an “extraordinary use of personnel time,” there will be no charge for the first 10 hours of staff time spent searching for, compiling, segregating, redacting, removing, scanning and/or reproducing records.
Anything beyond 10 hours will be billed at the actual hourly rate of the employee, not to exceed $35 per hour.
But how much the change decreases the cost of fulfilling public records requests remains to be seen.
“It’s hard for me to say,” City Attorney Josh Reid said. “We haven’t done any analysis on how much money will be saved as a result of this.”
In 2016, the city received 7,500 record requests and collected less than $2,100 in fees, city spokesman David Cherry said.
A records committee, which is comprised of Reid; City Clerk Sabrina Mercadante; City Manager Bob Murnane; finance director Jim McIntosh and chief financial officer Richard A. Derrick, is in charge of approving and updating the fees.
The city also changed its ethics standards for public servants.
Contract employees are now listed as public servants — which includes elected officials and city employees — holding them accountable to the city’s ethics rules. The change was required to be in sync with the state’s ethic’s codes.
The city also made revisions regarding conflicts of interest.
If a gift or loan from someone who is doing city business exceeds an annual aggregated amount of $200, employees must report it to the city manager and city attorney, who will decide if it’s a conflict of interest and may order that the gift or loan be returned. In the case of meals, this may result in reimbursement.
The City Council also voted to remove the prohibition against lobbying by volunteers who serve on city boards and commissions, excluding the Planning Commission, and to eliminate the 12-month post-service cooling-off period. The lobbying restrictions remain intact for elected officials and city employees.
The change will allow more people from various businesses and industries to join city boards and commissions, Reid said.
“I think these changes also reflect the fact that once upon a time people called the city ‘Hendertucky’ and it was a much smaller community,” Green said. “Now it is a significant city, and inevitably how it is governed should change. What didn’t seem like a conflict of interest in a town of a few thousands is more likely to be a conflict of interest in a town of hundreds of thousands.”
Changes in Henderson
A records committee has been created to do the following for public records requests:
1. Approve records retention and disposition schedules and approve requests for new records management systems;
2. Approve citywide records policies and procedures in compliance with state and federal law and the policy goals of the city;
3. Review all proposals for the expansion or modification of the records management program;
4. Approve the city-wide fee schedule for public records and document services.