Getting the Metropolitan Police Department to comply with Nevada’s public records law shouldn’t require a lawsuit. Unfortunately for taxpayers, that’s too often precisely what it takes.
In February 2017, the Review-Journal filed a public records request for documents related to sex trafficking cases and prostitution arrests. It was the first of several requests that remain unfulfilled. Metro demanded exorbitant fees, passed the newspaper off to another agency and claimed it couldn’t produce the documents. It just ignored other requests.
Late last month, the Review-Journal went to court.
“The law mandates that the government provide clear and specific responses within five business days of receipt of a request for access to the public’s records,” Review-Journal attorney Maggie McLetchie said. “Metro has not cooperated in this case. No reporter or other member of the public should have to spend over a year following up to get answers.”
It’s sad and frustrating that an agency charged with enforcing the law is so blatantly violating it. But that’s become a pattern at Metro. For months, it resisted releasing records and tapes regarding the Oct. 1 Strip shooting.
The problem for the public is that the individuals running Metro — or other public agencies — face no personal or professional consequences for violating the public records law. But this legal fight will have a cost — to taxpayers. Metro’s intransigence is financed by the very people it refuses to let see the public documents in question. There’s another problem, too. Most requesters simply don’t have the time or financial ability of the Review-Journal. How many requests has Metro killed with stall tactics?
Metro is far from the only agency to do this. The city of Henderson and the Clark County School District routinely hide public information or slow-walk requests.
That’s why lawsuits like this are so important when it comes to transparency and accountability. A strong public records statute isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if government bureaucrats can ignore it without consequence. The Review-Journal’s lawsuit is a reminder to taxpayers that many government agencies will do everything they can to resist the disinfectant that is sunshine.
One way to temper such resistance would be to strengthen Nevada’ public records law during the 2019 legislative session. Currently, those who sue and win a public records case may recover, at most, attorney fees. This limits lawsuits to organizations and individuals with considerable financial reserves. The Legislature should allow those who win public records lawsuits to receive, say, triple plaintiffs’ attorney fees. This would encourage lawyers to take on such cases and perhaps discourage government agencies from attempting to skirt the law in the first place.