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The Nevada Assembly chambers on Feb. 6, 2017, the first day of the legislative session. Photo by David Calvert.

Officials announced Friday that the legislative building in Carson City will be largely closed to the public during a forthcoming special session — a decision has attracted criticism from some who say the protocol will suppress public input.

Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes, whose agency provides staff and legal support for lawmakers, said the move to limit attendance was aimed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But she said there will be accommodations for limited media access, meetings will be livestreamed and testimony and public comment will be accepted through videoconference, phone and writing.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to prevent the potential spread of the virus, access to the legislative building during the upcoming special session of the Nevada Legislature will be limited to Legislators and essential staff,” Erdoes said. “We remain committed to a process that allows all members of the public to participate throughout the session.”

But at least one lawmaker and the Nevada State Education Association teachers union have registered their disappointment in the limitations on the special session, which is expected to happen in early July to address multibillion-dollar shortfalls spurred by the pandemic and possibly other topics such as policing reform.

“So the public won’t be allowed in the Legislative Bld. during the special session??? What happened to the people’s house?” tweeted Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, adding that readers should “watch this post. Here comes the Dem. shaming campaign.”

The state teachers union also criticized the arrangement and called for a socially distanced, mask-wearing protest outside the Legislature, tentatively on July 8, “to raise our voices in support of public education.” 

“Once again, educators’ voices and expertise will be shut out of an important process that directly impacts our day to day lives, including our health and safety,” NSEA President Brian Rippet said in a statement.

Gov. Steve Sisolak has said there will be a special session in early July, although a precise date has yet to be announced and its duration is unknown. The Legislative Counsel Bureau had been preparing for it by installing automated door openers, plexiglass dividers between legislators’ seats and removing chairs in a dining area to prevent groups from congregating.

But Erdoes had said plans could change if there is a significant increase in COVID-19 cases. Nevada’s case count has worsened, with five of the last seven days notching new case counts above 400 — a threshold that had not been reached before this week.

The announcement comes on the same day that Kevin Powers, the LCB’s general counsel, issued a 20-page opinion that argues limited physical access to the building is legal. It draws on sources including a recent New Mexico Supreme Court decision allowing that state’s Legislature to bar in-person public participation, and minutes from a constitutional convention in the 1860s to determine what the framers intended when they sought to ensure legislative proceedings were “open.”

The opinion concludes that the Legislature has granted Erdoes authority to ensure order and security within the building, and that it would not violate Nevada law or the First Amendment to restrict access, as long as people have reasonable alternative means to observe and participate in the proceedings.

Legal Opinion - Restricting Access to Nevada Legislative Building by Michelle Rindels on Scribd

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