I am an absolutist on very few things.
Personalized license plates – never! Oxford commas – never! Ohio State sports – never!
But unlike some in my profession, I do not argue that governments and public officials don’t have a right to say never to some of our requests for information. We do not have a right to invade every nook and cranny of a government’s operations or a politician’s life. Some journalists insist we can lay claim to EVERYTHING, and this is where the rest of us get a bad rap.
Lines, though, need to be drawn somewhere.
And that is where SB 287 and the Right to Know Coalition come in. This measure to force governments to obey Nevada’s Public Records Act is long overdue and should sail out of committee by Friday’s deadline. It simply enacts penalties for noncompliance.
This is not about the media; this is about the public’s – wait for it – right to know. Taxpayers foot the bill for these records; nearly all of them should be easily accessed by journalists who are the conduits to the masses.
It is noteworthy that the only foes to this modest proposal are Nevada governments, nearly all of whom have employed dilatory tactics or erected stonewalls to block us and nearly every media organization at one time or another from getting what is obviously public information.
And it is also not lost on me that besides prime sponsor David Parks, only four (!) other senators have signed onto the bill. Shame on the others for thumbing their noses at the public’s right to know.
Governments use various tactics to block the release of information. They flout a five-day rule for responding to requests. They charge exorbitant fees. They simply ignore a letter seeking information.
The existing law itself is a good one, attorney Maggie McLetchie, a fierce advocate for transparency who helped put together the coalition, told me. But, she added, it is “a toothless tiger” that is “not followed due to the culture in Nevada.”
How simple is this? As I write, this is happening in Carson City: Governments are using your money to pay lobbyists to try to prevent you from having access to documents you paid for.
“We can’t let the vast resources sunk into hordes of government lobbyists undermine a bill that is needed for the average citizen to know what the government is doing,” McLetchie told me Thursday.
Nevada simply does not have the accountability for ignoring its own public records law that other states have. The penalties in this new bill range from $1,000 to $250,000. That upper limit may be excessive, but some kind of strong message needs to be sent.
I know McLetchie will continue to sue governments on behalf of the Review-Journal, and we have a lawyer considering a suit right now based on a certain government agency’s recalcitrance.
But all of this could be avoided – and actually save governments time and money – if lawmakers would buck the hoary culture McLetchie mentioned and pass this bill.
If they do, I might even occasionally consider an Oxford comma.
Jon Ralston is the founder and editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering government and politics for more than thirty years. Contact him at [email protected]