My son David has bipolar disorder and is learning disabled. When he was 23, I brought him to a Clark County School District administrative office to get a document he needed to apply for services available to those with developmental disabilities. The document would prove he had attended school but didn’t graduate.
When he got to the counter, David asked for “a paper showing he attended school.” That’s the way someone who is learning disabled speaks. But for the clerk to whom he was talking, it wasn’t good enough. She said the district didn’t have such a document, and she rudely and dismissively turned him away.
I intervened, explaining David has an illness that limits his communication skills and that he needed a certificate of attendance for his Social Security disability application. She looked at me as if I was wasting her time. “We don’t maintain those records,” she said.
I asked to speak to her supervisor. Within a few minutes, we had the document we needed.
This was not an isolated incident. I have been repeatedly forced to serve as an advocate for my son so he can get the public records he needs to survive. Under a bill now being considered in the Legislature, the Clark County School District clerk would have been required by law to help. Senate Bill 287, sponsored by state Sen. David Parks, also would establish penalties against agencies that willfully refuse to release public documents and would limit the fees they can charge the public to provide copies of the records taxpayers rightfully own.
Parents of children with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities face many obstacles caring for their loved ones. Accessing public records should not be one of those obstacles. But when my son asked for a simple document that would provide him with access to food and shelter, the school district clerk he spoke with couldn’t be bothered to help. If David was on his own or had a parent who was unable to challenge a decision made in a public office, he probably would be living on the streets or in a jail cell.
Access to public records has allowed David to live independently, not struggle to provide for his basic needs. In addition to being David’s mom, I am a history professor and the president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada. We are a proud member of Right to Know Nevada, a large coalition of organizations supporting SB287. The League has always championed government transparency as a vital component of civic engagement, so our support of Sen. Parks’ legislation is a no-brainer.
As a history professor, I can attest to the necessity of reviewing original records. If we can’t evaluate our public agencies by reviewing the records that document their actions and processes, we will be unable to hold them accountable.
But I also agreed to support SB287 because of my experiences with my son.
When we think of public records laws, we often imagine news organizations requesting documents that uncover corruption or abuse. But how often do we think about the people who suffer from mental illness and developmental disabilities who need public records, but can’t get them because they are unable to “appropriately” communicate their needs? Without help from government employees who can navigate the system, they are left to fend for themselves.
It would be nice if every public official in Nevada were endowed with the empathy that makes that kind of help routine. But that isn’t the case. SB287 would provide the enforcement mechanism necessary to remind recalcitrant bureaucrats that public records belong to all of us, and that they must help requestors get the documents they need. In some cases, it can mean the difference between access to food and shelter or a life on the streets.
Sondra Cosgrove, a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada, is president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada.