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EDITORIAL: Kill ill-willed bill

When the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities introduced legislation to gut the state’s public records law and price out public access to government, the group wasn’t taking a rogue action that defied the will of the organization’s membership. Precisely the opposite was true. The league sponsored Senate Bill 28 because it had the explicit, full support of entities at every level of Nevada government.

That was made perfectly clear Thursday, during the bill’s first hearing, when lobbyists representing Clark County, the cities of Las Vegas and Henderson, the Clark County School District, UNLV, the Nevada System of Higher Education, the state Department of Corrections and Las Vegas police all testified in favor of SB28 before the Senate Government Affairs Committee.

It’s too bad the committee didn’t serve cheese with all the whine that was offered. Government representatives complained about the burdens of responding to public records requests, the work required of public employees and the costs such requests impose. Never mind that making documents available for public inspection is a fundamental function of every government office. If taxpayers can’t review the work of the governments they fund and can’t verify how their money is being spent, they can’t have any confidence that governments are functioning efficiently. When government officials block public access to public business, or put up barriers to routine requests for public information, they trash the public’s trust.

SB28 is written to discourage the public and the press from submitting requests for government records by making even simple reviews of documents cost prohibitive. The state’s public records law allows governments to charge fees for records requests if they require an “extraordinary use” of government resources, but the law doesn’t define “extraordinary use.” So SB28 provides a ridiculous definition, allowing governments to collect “extraordinary use” fees if personnel spend more than 30 minutes on a records request, or if the request results in more than 25 copied or printed pages.

The Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities actually amended its original bill, which would have let governments demand up to 50 cents per page — for paper or digital records. The amended bill drops the top price to 25 cents per printed page and waives the per-page fee for digital documents. How very generous of the organization.

But the bill, which is still alive because the committee took no action Thursday, still allows governments to assess additional fees for employee time if the per-sheet fee doesn’t cover their costs. And governments can charge the public for labor even if a citizen doesn’t want hard copies or digital files. If a requester merely wants to review a file and take notes from it, under SB28, the inspection still can fall under the “extraordinary use” standard. Under additional bill amendments, governments would get to charge the public for time spent redacting requested records — a provision that gives officials a financial incentive to comingle confidential and public information and black out data that aren’t confidential — and demand a deposit of up to 50 percent of the estimated “extraordinary use” fee “before beginning any task required to comply with the request.”

This contemptuous language invites such obvious abuse, it’s disgusting that it was even suggested. For example, if someone asks for documents that could be embarrassing to an agency or official, a bureaucrat could demand hundreds of dollars up front to try scare off the requester — and it would be completely legal.

Wes Henderson, lobbyist for the league, told the committee Thursday that his organization believes in transparency and that governments don’t want to discourage public access to records. He must think the public is stupid. SB28 is written solely to reduce the number of records requests and chase off pesky government watchdogs.

The parade of public-sector lobbyists could not have been clearer Thursday. They think governments get too many records requests — not withstanding the existence of their well-funded communications and public information offices — and they support SB28 because they want to reduce the number of such requests.

Their testimony, provided at public expense with the goal of making the public pay even more for their own records, is an indictment of every single elected official charged with overseeing the entities that declared support for SB28. Either those elected officials have no idea what their lobbyists are lobbying for, in which case they’re guilty of dereliction of duty, or those office holders fully support SB28, in which case they’re guilty of putting the bureaucracy’s interests ahead of the public interest and should be voted out of office.

Many of these same elected officials have openly cried for more of your hard-earned money. But they don’t want you to be able to see how it’s spent.

Remember, the Sunshine in Government Foundation reports that just 6 percent of public records requests are filed by journalists. SB28 wasn’t written to screw reporters. It was written to screw you, the taxpaying public.

The Legislature must make sure Nevada governments never get the chance to stifle openness and destroy the public’s trust. Kill SB28 as soon as possible.

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