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Opinion

Time for full transparency

The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Legislature is not required to comply with the state’s open meeting law. I wonder how many people are taken aback by this statement and how many think it is not a good idea. 

Nevada Revised Statute (NRS) 241, “Meetings of State and Local Agencies” is more commonly referred to as the “open meeting law”. The idea behind open meeting laws is well understood and compliance is expected: Meetings of public agencies will be open to the general public, citizens will be allowed to provide comments, and official records will be prepared and available upon request. Violations of open meeting laws are often met with civil action against the agency involved, usually accompanied by media coverage.

NRS 241.016 (1) is clear: “The meetings of a public body that are quasi-judicial in nature are subject to the provisions of this chapter.”

Article 4, Section 15 of the Nevada Constitution expands: “..The meetings of all legislative committees must be open to the public,..”

Straightforward? No. Article 4, Section 6 of the Constitution allows the Legislature to “...determine the rules of its proceedings...” and in NRS241.016 (2)(a)The following are exempt from the requirements of this chapter:

   (a) The Legislature of the State of Nevada.

Yes, the Legislature exempts itself from the requirement of the open meeting statute.

What has resulted from these contradictions is an absence of transparency and, I perceive, a presumption among legislative leaders that major bills can be deliberated and voted on without much if any public input, without public observation, and in some cases, without a formal record of the proceedings. Whether intentional or not, public participation and input is being restricted by the Legislature itself, the very body that should be most concerned about ensuring an open and transparent process. To wit:

·         During the last two weeks of every session, both the Assembly and Senate suspend ALL rules. This means that even if open meeting law was typically and generally followed, adherence is not required during this period.

·         During the last two weeks of the 81st legislative session, 44 bills were introduced (30 in the last week).

·         Committees often discuss and vote on bills at hastily called “behind the bar” meetings held on the floor of the chamber during short recesses. Public access is not allowed, and no formal record of the meeting or subsequent vote is prepared. In the final two weeks of the just-completed session there were 672 committee actions (473 in the last week). Controversial or exempt bills (bills the Legislature declares exempt from all deadlines) are often decided out of public view, behind the bar. 291 bills were exempt this session.

·         Committee agendas change at the last minute, which is outside of open meeting law requirements. Sometimes the change happens within one or two hours of the scheduled meeting, giving members of the public little opportunity to adjust.

·         Committee agendas do not have to be specific. Close to legislative deadlines and often during the last two weeks of the session, agendas frequently state “Possible work session” or “Discussion of previously considered items”, hardly enough information for the public to know what is going on.

·         Legislative leaders have no concern for time. Meetings regularly do not begin at the stated time. In many instances, the delay is an hour or more. This creates issues for members of the public on tight schedules.

All in all, exemption from the open meeting law allows the Legislature to introduce important legislation outside of legislative deadlines, often in the final two weeks of the session, forcing last minute scheduling of hearings and allowing for little public input beyond stakeholders who have been part of the bill-drafting process. Examples this session are SB448, a major energy bill introduced on May 13, 2021, heard in committee May 17th and 19th, and approved by the senate May 21st and by the Assembly May 31st, and AB495, the mining tax bill, introduced, heard and passed by both chambers on May 31st.

Transparency by our elected officials and by all legislative bodies is paramount to an open and just society. The clear and deliberate flaunting of NRS241 by the Nevada Legislature must not be tolerated. Elected officials, especially in recent years, have begun to support more open transparency legislation. If Nevada’s state legislators are serious about transparency, they need to repeal their exemption. Will they have the courage to do that?

Doug Goodman is the founder and executive director of Nevadans for Election Reform.

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