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Public records compromise

Nevada’s public records law lacks accountability, complains Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

Faced with requests for public records, some state agencies have been known to withhold an entire document instead of simply redacting small sections that may be privileged, Mr. Smith told legislators in Carson City this week.

In other cases, those requesting public records are simply ignored until they go to the expense of filing a lawsuit.

Senate Bill 123, introduced by state Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, a lawyer and former journalist, is supposed to remedy some of these problems by setting a deadline by which public agencies must reply to such requests.

This is not a requirement that the documents actually be provided within a few days, mind you — SB123 as drafted simply requires agencies to report back within two business days, indicating how long it’s going to take to actually produce the requested information.

This has brought various state and local agency chiefs trooping to the capital, complaining that a two-day response requirement was too short — as was Sen. Care’s provision that interested parties could seek permission from a judge to inspect confidential records after they’re more than 10 years old.

State Welfare Director Nancy Ford testified last week that in one case it took her agency two weeks just to sort out a single records request. Dan Musgrove, representing University Medical Center in Las Vegas, raised a similar objection.

So Sen. Care has now amended his bill to satisfy some of these objections. As the bill now moves on to the Senate Government Affairs Committee, the initial response requirement has been extended to five days, while the provision that allows researchers to apply to the courts to see confidential records now requires that they wait 30 years, or until the death of the subject person.

Sen. Care’s bill would not change existing definitions of what is or is not a public record, and the courts would remain the final arbiter of records disputes.

Mr. Smith of the NPA continues to endorse the amended version. "Having this in place will help strengthen Nevada’s open records law," he says.

In fact, it will be hard for any written statute to alter the mind-set of those in government whose instincts run toward secrecy and foot-dragging.

It’s human nature to get defensive when someone wants to look over our shoulders — far too easy for bureaucrats to view such records as "ours" and to begrudge information requests as unjustified demands on their time.

Until some personal costs and penalties attach to obstructionism, those who harbor such attitudes may still find it far too easy to say, "You want a date? Here’s your date: You can have that document next leap year."

Still, SB123 is worth a try. By creating firm guidelines, it should at least make it far easier to single out that small minority of caretakers who decline to operate in good faith.

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