At the start of this week’s hearing on the Shield Public Records from the Prying Eyes of the Public and Press Act of 2015 (not its real name), the chief lobbyist for the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities made a little funny.
Noting that a Review-Journal editorial had called Senate Bill 28 the worst bill of 2015, league Executive Director Wes Henderson joked that he would have brought a copy along, but he would have had to pay for the newspaper to do so.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Only one thing, Mr. Henderson: That editorial — and all other Review-Journal content — is available online for free. You know, the way all the records maintained by the members of your organization should be.
But that wasn’t Henderson’s funniest line, not by a long shot. His funniest line came when he told the Senate’s Government Affairs Committee that “our members strongly believe in open and transparent records.”
Now that’s funny! Because if they were, they’d have lined up against SB28 instead of in favor of it.
For those who don’t know, the bill (with a proposed amendment) would allow local government agencies to charge a fee (up to 25 cents per page) for public records. It would also allow governments to charge for the cost of time for government workers to fulfill the request, including time spent formatting, retrieving, compiling, reviewing or redacting records.
And I thought things were bad under the current public records law! Which, of course, they are.
Supporters of SB28 include the Clark County School District, which has refused to release the obviously public email addresses of its teachers to the Nevada Policy Research Institute. The district somehow managed to convince the credulous District Judge Douglas Smith of its argument that the addresses are not public information, and the case (which you’re paying for, by the way) is on appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court.
This is the same school district that once demanded nearly $34,000 after former 8NewsNow investigative reporter Colleen McCarty requested one year’s worth of purchase card statements for district employees.
Another supporter of the law was the city of Henderson, where an assistant city attorney and the city clerk showed up to testify. The city of Henderson is best known recently for an ill-considered, since-rescinded policy that threatened discipline up to and including termination for any employee who talked to members of the news media without authorization. (City officials later said they hadn’t reviewed the wording of the policy in detail, but when it was first reported by the Review-Journal’s Eric Hartley last month, a city spokesman defended it. Hartley’s picture — grabbed from a Twitter account — was helpfully provided to Henderson employees, apparently so they would recognize the person to whom they should not be speaking.)
Other local governments supporting the law included Nye County, the Nevada System of Higher Education, UNLV, Clark County, the city of Las Vegas (where, full disclosure, my wife works), Las Vegas police and the Nevada Department of Corrections. Ironically, taxpayer dollars paid lobbyists for all of those entities to argue to taxpayer-paid state lawmakers about why taxpayers shouldn’t be allowed to look at records that those very taxpayers pay to create and maintain. Opponents include the press, NPRI and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
Local governments complained public-records requests can take up too much time, that they can be made with vexatious purpose or to advance the commercial interests of private enterprise, or that they can become too broad or complex. Allowing a fee would enable those governments to recoup some of their costs.
But the reality in the trenches is that government agencies all too often use the fee, varying interpretations of the law or the potential for an expensive bill to keep records away from the press and curious members of the public in order to avoid embarrassment or thwart investigations into wrongdoing. Handing them another way to charge records requesters would be like buying Jason a brand-new set of Ginsu knives from the late-night TV commercials, along with oil, a Whetstone and a nice carrying case. And a tank.
In other words, a really bad idea.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.