EDITORIAL: Put teeth in Nevada’s transparency law

Even good news about transparency in Nevada was tempered by a reminder of how far there is to go.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund released a new study last month that ranked government spending websites. Nevada came in tied for 10th, and the study authors praised the ability of taxpayers to search by recipient, keyword and agency. Nevada also had the distinction of being one of only 10 states to improve its score, earning a solid “B.”

That’s a laudable accomplishment, and Nevada officials should be praised for their efforts while they continue to improve oversight. There remains, however, much more to do.

“While state law mandates that all information related to the conduct of government business be provided to Nevadans in a timely manner, the state’s transparency law lacks any mechanism to hold government accountable for stonewalling public record requests,” Nevada Policy Research Institute spokesman Michael Schaus told the Review-Journal’s Ramona Giwargis.

There was a vivid example of this weakness just days ago. On Wednesday, more than seven months, after the horrific Oct. 1 attack, the Metropolitan Police Department released the first batch of police body camera footage. For months, Metro fought the release of these records in court. The Review-Journal and other media organizations had to sue to obtain the information, even though it is clearly public under the law.

As the Review-Journal’s Rachel Crosby chronicled, the Review-Journal won this case in District Court in February. Metro kept stonewalling until the Nevada Supreme Court smacked down the department in late April. But what did Metro officials care? They used taxpayers money to fight the lawsuits and to try to keep those same taxpayers in the dark.

This creates exactly the wrong incentive structure. Beyond doing the right thing, government agencies have little reason to follow the law and every reason to obfuscate and delay. Most requesters don’t have the time or resources to fight a prolonged court battle. Government bureaucrats can win by stalling.

The Legislature needs to step in. Short of holding secretive bureaucrats personally liable for their obstruction, one way of improving the situation is to allow anyone who successfully sues for public records to collect treble attorney fees. This would encourage attorneys to take on these types of cases. It would also create a stronger incentive for government agencies to fulfill legitimate requests.

Nevada has shown progress when it comes to making it easier for state taxpayers to track how their money is being spent. But it’s time to put teeth in Nevada’s transparency law by discouraging agencies from dragging their feet on or ignoring public records requests.

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