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EDITORIAL: Playing games with open government erodes the public trust

Nevada’s public records law is clear: In order to “foster democratic principles,” the taxpayers must enjoy access to public documents. The state produces a manual to help agencies ensure that workers understand the law and respect the concept of accountability.

Nor does the statute include many escape hatches. The law holds all records to be public unless they are specifically exempted. In addition, it orders state workers to interpret the law “liberally” and to narrowly construe any exceptions embedded in statute.

Despite such strong language, the tendency of bureaucracies to prefer darkness over light, anonymity over scrutiny, remains strong.

The Review-Journal’s Amelia Pak-Harvey reported over the weekend that the Clark County School District has satisfied just 16 of 28 requests that the newspaper has made since November for various public documents. She correctly describes that compliance rate as “abysmal.” Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, told Ms. Pak-Harvey that, “My impression is that [the district] is one of the worst in the state for dragging their feet and wanting to go to court and trying to hide stuff, basically.”

Meanwhile, the city of Henderson has long had a similar reputation. Last week, in response to a Review-Journal public records request, the city finally released a handful of details about two top police officials who were placed on administrative leave in May and then “voluntarily separated” from the city. Former Police Chief Patrick Moers and erstwhile Deputy Chief Bobby Long will receive more than $163,000 and $228,000, respectively, on the way out the door. But the city continues to stonewall on specifics, arguing in a statement that they are “considered confidential.”

In other words, Henderson taxpayers, don’t worry about the messy details, just open your wallets.

Newly elected Mayor Debra March could go a long way toward enhancing her city’s credibility by no longer tolerating her bureaucracy’s penchant for parochial insularity. She could set a productive tone for her administration by insisting that city officials be more forthcoming in regard to Henderson’s former top cops.

Of course, it didn’t help the cause of open government when Carson City Democrats last session rallied behind a bill intended to keep private certain information regarding Nevada’s public pension system. The governor eventually vetoed Senate Bill 384, but the fact that it ever made it to his desk was an affront to transparency.

Make no mistake: The proposal emboldened recalcitrant entities — such as Henderson and the Clark County School District — that too often treat the state’s public records act as an optional inconvenience rather than a hallmark of democracy and a bulwark against corruption.

Those lawmakers who embraced the misguided effort to conceal from taxpayers the details of state retirement payouts sent precisely the wrong message about the importance of pubic records — and helped further erode the public trust that our government institutions need to flourish.

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