Legislators criticized for favoring public-salary ‘secrecy’

CARSON CITY – Without mentioning their reasons, members of the Legislative Commission voted unanimously Thursday for a regulation that frees cities and counties from having to post on their websites the salaries and benefits of individual employees.

The vote came after John Sherman, the Washoe County finance director, said “there is a cost” to compiling and posting the salaries of individual workers. He did not estimate what that cost might be.

The move brought criticism from the Nevada Press Association, which represents newspapers in the state, and the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank based in Las Vegas, which called it a move toward more government secrecy.

The regulation puts into effect a law passed in 2011 that exempts cities and counties from having to publish in newspapers a quarterly list showing all bills they have paid. Now they can post it on their websites.

Only Assemblyman Pete Livermore, R-Carson City, opposed the bill, Senate Bill 65. His city was one of the few that complied with the existing law by posting the information in a newspaper, the Nevada Appeal.

The 1939 law requiring the publication of financial information in newspapers, according to Nevada Press Association Executive Director Barry Smith, has been followed by only a handful of local governments. He said Las Vegas and Clark County have not followed that law for many years. Reno and Nye County now are the only local governments that run on their websites information about individual employees salaries, he added.

“The law always said that they have to publish a detailed list of every receipt and every expenditure,” Smith said. “Reno and Las Vegas, Clark County and Washoe County never did, at least not in decades.”

During hearings on the bill last year, Mike Cathcart, a financial officer for the city of Henderson, said his community would save $500,000 a year by not having to publish financial information in the newspaper. But he also testified that residents who wanted specific information that was not on the city website could call City Hall and request the information, and it would be prepared for them to pick up.

After the meeting, a dejected Smith said information about public workers’ salaries remain public records, but people interested in that data might have “to walk down to city hall” to get it.

He said SB65 never made an exception for cities and counties not to include the individual salary information on their websites, but the Legislative Commission put that into the regulation. The commission is made up of 12 legislators.

The regulation will require the cities and counties to publish in newspapers on five consecutive days a summary of their expenditures and link to the websites where they can get more information. But on their websites they can aggregate how much money departments are paying in salaries.

“My point is they have to list the checks they write to everybody else, but they don’t have to list the checks they write to themselves,” Smith said. “That is a big part of what people want to see.”

Victor Joecks, a spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, said his organization lists annual salary information for public employees on its transparentnevada.com website and plans to continue doing so.

He said a Nevada Supreme Court decision makes it clear this information is public record, but the institute often must file public requests to get some cities and counties to comply.

While many officials talk about how they want transparency in government, he said that “when no one is looking, they try to get away with as much as they can.”

“People in power don’t like to tell taxpayers how they are spending our money,” he added.

Smith said the law allows the Department of Taxation to “make inquiries” if the financial information is not placed on websites but has no penalties if they don’t. He predicted “nothing” will happen if they fail to follow the new law and regulation.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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