"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
— Justice Louis Brandeis
Those to whom we have given the duty to conduct our governmental obligations are the servants of the taxpayers — not the other way around, as it too often seems. As our employees, our elected and appointed officials must account for how much of our tax dollars they spend and how wisely they spend it.
In 2005, under the stewardship of state Sen. Terry Care, the Legislature pulled back slightly one the many cloaks of secrecy allowed under the state’s open meeting law, passing a bill that would require public bodies to review the performance of those they directly appoint — such as university presidents, school superintendents and city and county managers — in the open. No more back-room backslapping after which they emerge and reassure us that the manager in question unquestionably deserves a 15 percent raise for another year of sterling performance.
At the time, Care, a Las Vegas Democrat, noted that county managers and school superintendents have budgets of millions of dollars and the public has a right to know how they are spending taxpayer dollars.
"The emphasis should be on the public’s right to know, not the discomfort of the people employed by the public," said Care as his bill was breezing through the Legislature. "The public is better served when it is out in the open."
Keep that word in mind as you read the quote from the executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties, which has requested that the 2009 Legislature repeal that which was passed in 2005 and again allow secret evaluations of top appointees.
"My board certainly respects and believes in open government," Review-Journal reporter Sean Whaley quoted NACo Director Jeff Fontaine as saying. "It’s just this particular case with this aspect of the open meeting law. …
"The board requested the bill primarily because county commissioners feel like they can’t be as forthright as they should be in an open meeting."
Why not? Isn’t it the job of the elected official to be forthright and honest with the voters, the taxpayers, their bosses? Why so timid? What are they hiding and from whom?
Knowing my proclivities in this realm of debate, Erik Pappa, director of public communications for Clark County, pre-emptively fired off an e-mail to me. "NACo’s positions do not always reflect those of the state’s 17 counties. In this case, Clark County respects the intent of existing law and supports conducting performance reviews in full view of the public."
In fact, the county commissioners conducted County Manager Virginia Valentine’s evaluation in public two weeks ago without any discomfort. And the Las Vegas City Council did the same with City Manager Doug Selby a couple of weeks before that.
Though there was the usual backslapping and paeans of praise, the one exception to the rule was: no pay raises.
Valentine said she couldn’t bring herself to ask for a raise of her $206,700 a year salary while the county’s tax revenues are suffering. "It just sends the wrong message," she said.
While various commissioners sang her praises and mentioned the degree of difficulty of the job, it might’ve been prudent to ask her how she would assure the taxpayers that the county building inspectors would in the future actually conduct inspections instead of being dismissive of whistle blowers. But since it was in the open, we got to see that no such discomforting questions were raised.
Is it difficult to ask tough questions under the scrutiny of your bosses? Of course.
But elected office is not for the timid. If they can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen and let someone in who can do the job without cowering.
Have you ever noticed that when you turn on the light the cockroaches skitter?
Thomas Mitchell is the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and writes on the role of the newspaper and access to public information. He may be reached at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.