The default setting of Nevada’s open meeting law holds that the public’s business should be conducted in public. It doesn’t matter that taxpayers rarely frequent some government functions — they’re footing the bill for the proceedings, so they deserve proper notice of government gatherings and the right to witness the testimony, decisions and votes that shape public policy.
So anytime a bureaucrat, an elected official or a court strikes at the spirit of the open meeting law, no matter how selective or seemingly obscure the action might be, it should cause the public concern. How can they maintain proper oversight of their governments if they don’t know when their government bodies are meeting? Or when those meetings take place in the shadows, instead of the sunshine?
The latest blow to openness came Thursday when the Nevada Supreme Court reversed a 2006 ruling against closed Parole Board hearings. The previous decision was made by a three-judge panel, but the state, in an affront to the public interest, appealed to the full court.
The case involved inmate John Witherow, who contended that his family had not been given proper notice of his parole hearing and were thus unable to testify or submit statements on his behalf. But the court ruled that because Parole Board hearings are “quasi-judicial” proceedings, they are exempt from the open meeting law.
The Parole Board successfully argued that openness is a nuisance in trying to carry out hundreds of hearings each month. Under the board’s interpretation of the law, members would be helpless to stop a parade of relatives and advocates from rambling on about a particular case, victim or inmate. In fact, in all public meetings, the chair retains the right to limit statements and presentations and request written comments to ensure agendas aren’t stalled.
Justices Jim Hardesty and Bill Maupin wrote a partial dissent to the decision, arguing the ruling opens a huge new loophole that will allow public panels to close their meetings. Any board considering a punishment or a due process appeal, from a homeowners association to a professional license authority, may now close its doors because its deliberations are “quasi-judicial.” Justice Hardesty warned that such a provision “eviscerates” Nevada’s open meeting law.
We can only hope that he’s wrong. But too many people in public service have proved eager to run their agencies and commissions as Star Chambers, and this ruling gives them even more license to do so. Taxpayers shouldn’t stand for it, and neither should lawmakers.