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EDITORIAL: Coronavirus scare a reminder of why Nevada government needs sunlight

It’s not just in the midst of a pandemic that citizens need to know what their government is doing.

Over the past two weeks, government officials have made decisions that have significantly altered lives. Gov. Steve Sisolak has closed Nevada’s schools for at least the next three weeks and its nonessential businesses for a month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends canceling and postponing gatherings of more than 50 people for the next two months. President Donald Trump has virtually shut down international air travel from the United States.

These are draconian actions. But the coronavirus poses a unique threat. Government officials at the federal, state and local levels have provided a flurry of details about the number of current infections, the death count and the threat of exponential growth. This information, combined with what has happened in other countries, provides the rationale for what was unthinkable even a month ago.

The openness of governments in this country stands in stark contrast to China’s response to the initial outbreak. Li Wenliang was the first doctor to sound the alarm about the coronavirus. China’s totalitarian regime forced him to sign a statement that his concerns were “illegal behavior.” Even as the virus spread, Chinese officials downplayed it.

“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better,” he told The New York Times before dying from coronavirus. “There should be more openness and transparency.”

Yes, there should have been. In this instance, transparency from the Chinese government could have prevented thousands of deaths and a worldwide economic slowdown.

Fortunately, the stakes for public records requests and other transparency efforts here in Nevada aren’t that high. But the need for transparency in government remains. That’s why news organizations and other groups are highlighting Sunshine Week this week. It’s a reminder about the importance of government openness.

Transparency promotes accountability. Public record requests have helped the Review-Journal’s investigative team expose systemic problems with the Nevada Board of Dental Examiners. Public documents led to disgraced former Henderson constable Earl Mitchell losing his police powers after the Review-Journal revealed he stole tens of thousands of dollars from taxpayers. The Department of Motor Vehicles wasted $26 million in registration fees in what has all the trappings of a bribery scandal. The Review-Journal broke that story and continues to investigate it, in part by seeking additional public records.

These stories and many more are important to the public. Let Sunshine Week and the coronavirus be a reminder to government bureaucrats that transparency is essential, not optional.

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