November 14, 2016 - 8:00 pm
The Nevada Supreme Court shouldn’t hesitate to overturn a recent lower court ruling that provides cover for public servants looking to evade the state’s open meeting law.
At issue is whether officials may avoid public scrutiny by conducting government business on their personal electronic devices. Incredibly, a senior judge in northern Nevada ruled earlier this year that they may legally do so.
The case involves a dispute in Silver City, just east of Carson City, stemming from a 2014 decision by Lyon County commissioners to once again allow mining in the area. Residents of the Comstock Residents Association opposed the move and sought access to official communication between the commissioners and Comstock Mining Inc., a Nevada-based precious metal mining operation.
Luke Busby, an attorney for the residents, noted that commissioners had used their personal devices or email accounts to discuss the land-use application outside a public setting. But Senior District Judge Steven Kosach held that the politicians could shield such communications because the devices are not under the control of any government body. He admitted, however, that his ruling “may cause public employees to skirt” the open meeting law.
Use a personal server to keep matters hidden from taxpayers? Judge Kosach must be disappointed in the recent election results. Had Hillary Clinton prevailed he might have been a candidate for the federal bench.
Levity aside, the state’s open meeting law exists to promote accountability and transparency by demanding government officials conduct public business in the light of day. If Judge Kosach’s decision is allowed to stand, the statute won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.
“It’s the electronic version of the old back-room deal,” said Barry Smith, director of the Nevada Press Association.
Yes, politicians and public employees deserve privacy when it comes to personal communications on their own computers and cell phones. But deliberations and correspondence regarding official government functions don’t suddenly fall outside the purview of the law simply because an official switches from one phone to another.
Mr. Busby has appealed to the state Supreme Court. The justices should set things straight as quickly as possible before other public officials get any bad ideas.