North Las Vegas City Council members beware: Although your city’s government is broken, the state’s public records law isn’t. So don’t try to fix it.
Tonight, the City Council will hear from Wes Henderson, executive director of the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities, about the organization’s priorities for the 2015 Legislature. The league, of which North Las Vegas is a member, is allowed to submit five bill draft requests each regular session. One of them appears to be a solution in search of a problem, and the council should tell Mr. Henderson as much.
The state’s public records law was written to ensure that taxpayers can review the business of the governments they pay for. If governments can block public scrutiny of documents — from emails to contracts, legal opinions to payroll records — it’s almost impossible for watchdogs to root out abuses and hold officials accountable for their failures.
Despite the clear language of Nevada’s public records law, which instructs governments that its provisions “must be construed liberally” and that any “balancing of interests which limits or restricts access … must be construed narrowly,” officials at every level try to stonewall records requests all the time. One of their favorite tactics involves charging prohibitive fees for copies of records. The public records law allows governments to pass along steep bills if digging up documents requires “extraordinary use of its personnel or technological resources.”
According to today’s North Las Vegas City Council agenda, Bill Draft Request 464, brought by the league, “would add a definition of what constitutes an ‘extraordinary use of its personnel or technological resources’ to the statue.” And how would such use be defined? It’s safe to say that cities aren’t interested in making it easier and cheaper to obtain public records. Too many government employees consider public records requests a nuisance.
There is no more important public service than allowing the public to see what governments are doing. Any language that makes it easier for governments to charge exorbitant fees for public records shouldn’t see the light of a hearing in Carson City next year.
Nowhere is transparency more important than North Las Vegas, a municipality on the brink of insolvency because of years of terrible governance. The city needs public scrutiny to save it from itself. Unless the league is seeking legislation to make it harder for governments to assess fees for records requests, the council should decline to support the bill drafts.