Let sunshine bring light to the shadows

Too bad Nevada isn’t known as the Sunshine State.

I know Florida already claimed that nickname, and Nevadans are proud to live in the Silver State. But I’m not thinking about our sunny skies and abundant potential for solar energy.

I’m talking about sunshine as in Sunshine Week, the annual initiative by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to draw attention to the importance of open government and freedom of information.

In a survey done for Sunshine Week (March 15-21) of the kind of information states make available online for voters and taxpayers, Nevada ranks 10th with five other states — a good place to be.

Of the 20 areas surveyed, Nevada posts 14 on the Web. It provides online access to statewide school test data and political campaign contributions, for example, but not bridge safety reports or child care center inspections.

Nevada also generally does well in comparison with other states on several aspects of openness in government.

It has a strong shield law, which protects reporters’ sources, and an effective open meetings law. Its public records law was bolstered in the 2007 legislative session, although there are still some gaping exceptions.

The Supreme Court adopted rules last year to reinforce its commitment to open civil-court case files. The Legislature, through the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s excellent Web site, makes it easier than ever to read bills and follow hearings. Gov. Jim Gibbons launched an initiative that put the state’s budget and expenditures online.

These open-government policies help Nevada rise toward the top of the list.

Still, there’s room for improvement before we could truly call ourselves a sunshine state.

In the current session, legislation has been proposed to reduce the amount of financial information published by school districts, cities and counties in local newspapers. Another bill would close meetings when elected officials are evaluating their city and county managers. These are bad ideas.

On the positive side, legislators also have introduced bills to improve the timing of campaign-finance reports, open meetings of common-interest communities, make public the formal complaints against contractors and reveal some records of the Las Vegas Monorail.

As director of the Nevada Press Association, I lobby in favor of the open-government bills and against the ones I see as shutting the doors. It’s important to understand why newspapers go to the trouble to fight these fights.

The guarantee of a free press in the First Amendment carries with it a responsibility to be a watchdog of government. More than simply standing on the sidelines, newspapers have advocated for open government by whipping up public opinion, testifying in legislative hearings and going to court to get access to records and meetings.

It boils down to this: What do they want to say behind closed doors that they don’t want us to hear? There’s only one way for officials to assure taxpayers and voters they have no hidden agenda, no secret deal. And that’s to keep things open.

We’ve gone along with changes in laws in recent years to help protect identity theft — although I think governments tend to ask for and hang onto far more personal information than they need. This isn’t about prying into privacy; it’s about holding elected officials and tax-paid employees accountable.

Fortunately, few people would argue against open government. Unfortunately, all of them seem to be in government. It’s particularly troubling when tax dollars are spent to continue to try to keep records secret, as is the case with the Clark County School District and board members’ e-mails to each other.

There’s no question that many newspapers are struggling financially in a sour economy. This weakens their ability and desire to spend money on reporters and lawyers to pry open closed doors. To me, it is nothing short of a threat to the fundamental balance of our democracy.

“News coverage is not all that newspapers have given us. They have lent the public a powerful means of leverage over the state, and this leverage is now at risk,” writes Paul Starr, a Princeton professor.

True, the rise of the Internet has created more opportunities for access to government information. But — in keeping with the solar analogy — it’s more of a passive system. Somebody has to demand it, and then spread it to voters and taxpayers.

Newspapers have long supplied the energy that focuses the light — and sometimes heat — on activities of Nevada governments. And we’ll continue to try to make it the sunniest of states.

Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association, which represents the state’s daily and weekly newspapers.

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