Open government is your responsibility, too

The Nevada Legislature has an opportunity to make some welcome and substantial improvements to open government in this state, and there’s a good chance it will.

At the same time, I’m calling on two other important components of open government — the press and the public — to do their part to step up the quality of discourse on legislation and policy.

This is Sunshine Week (March 10-16), when the press turns a spotlight on governments and their efforts to operate transparently. And Nevada lawmakers are considering a bill that would help ensure the Legislature itself is functioning openly.

Called the Legislative Open Meeting Law, it would cover — for the first time — committees and commissions of the Legislature when the Legislature itself is not in session.

The Legislature has long exempted itself from the open meeting law.

Under a 120-day schedule, it has argued, events sometimes move too swiftly to notify the public three days before every meeting.

Legislators adopt rules each session to declare their hearings and meetings to be open, and in general the Nevada Legislature makes itself quite accessible.

Most meetings can be watched online, documents are readily available and the legislators themselves are easy to find.

What hasn’t been clear, however, is the status of powerful committees that meet during the interim between biennial regular legislative sessions.

The Interim Finance Committee and the Legislative Commission, for example, are generally good about following most requirements of the law.

Assembly Bill 118, from Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, would make sure they continue to do so.

In addition, the attorney general’s office has brought bills that would bring some structure to Nevada’s public records law ( Assembly Bill 31) and strengthen the open meeting law ( Assembly Bill 65) by applying it to quasi-judicial bodies, as well as proposing a better definition of “deliberate.”

On the Senate side, Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, has introduced Senate Bill 74, to make sure the public can get free copies of meeting minutes.

Unfortunately, there are also bills to reduce government openness in Nevada. Assembly Bill 4 and Assembly Bill 75 would allow governments to place some public notices (property-tax assessment rolls and summaries of spending) only on their websites, removing them from newspapers. Our argument is that those notices should be on both the Internet and in newspapers to spread them to as wide an audience as possible.

The responsibility for transparency in Nevada doesn’t lie entirely with the government, however. As director of the Nevada Press Association, I’m keenly aware of the responsibility of the press to be a watchdog. That means fair, thoughtful, in-depth coverage of all levels of our state’s government.

At the same time, the people of this state have a serious responsibility to engage their elected officials and appointed bureaucrats.

They must use these tools — open records, open meetings, public notices — to inform themselves about issues and make their opinions known to lawmakers.

In an age of 140-character analysis and six-second video, I fear that we are being conditioned to look for easy answers — which, obviously, are not always the best.

Good, open, responsible government requires effort. If we don’t do the work, nobody will.

Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

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