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EDITORIAL: Clark County may use taxpayer money to keep taxpayers in the dark

Clark County officials may be poised to take a lesson in chutzpah from the folks over at the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System. Like those who run the state pension plan, county commissioners are on the verge of burning large bushels of taxpayer money in an audacious effort to keep those very same taxpayers from getting too nosy about public records.

Tuesday’s County Commission meeting includes an agenda item allowing county attorneys to appeal a recent court ruling which held that autopsy reports are available for inspection under the state open records law. The item notes that moving forward with this — to fight a court battle that seeks to prevent those who pay the bills from scrutinizing government documents — will entail spending an undetermined amount of taxpayer revenue on “court fees, possibly attorney fees and other related expenses.”

This is like a teenager living under parent’s roof suing to keep his mom and dad from entering his bedroom while also demanding that they pay his legal fees.

Alas, this is all too common in Nevada. PERS officials for years have shown a disregard for public resources by trying to convince the courts that taxpayers should enjoy only limited access to information about the generous government retirement program that they fund.

The agenda item is no doubt the work of Coroner John Fudenberg, who in April refused to release three autopsy reports to the Review-Journal. He cited privacy and other concerns. Months later, District Judge Jim Crockett rejected Mr. Fudenberg’s arguments and ruled that the reports were public under state law, which holds that all government records are public unless specifically exempted from the statute.

That’s as it should be, of course. How can Mr. Fudenberg’s office be held accountable if the results of its work are shielded from taxpayers? Autopsies are vital to determining the truth in many deaths, particularly those involving crimes or suspicious circumstances. Keeping them secret only makes it easier to cover up incompetence, corruption or wrongdoing. What is Mr. Fudenberg have to conceal?

“Courts all across the country have found that autopsy reports are public records,” said Maggie McLetchie, an attorney for the Review-Journal. Indeed, why the county legal staff is indulging Mr. Fudenberg remains a mystery. But you can bet this ill-advised effort would be killed in its tracks if those involved were forced to support it with their own money rather than with an unlimited line of credit courtesy of the taxpayers.

The commissioners on Tuesday should do their constituents a favor on two fronts. They should reject the appeal as both a waste of taxpayer money and an affront to the vital concepts of government accountability and transparency.

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