Barry Smith

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June 8, 2007
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2007 Legislature lets in more sunshine on state and local governments

As the sun rose on the morning after adjournment, it was clear the 2007 Legislature's actions will help shed more light on Nevada's state and local governments.

Lawmakers approved three laws, and shot down one, to open meetings and records. Often called "sunshine" legislation, these are the kind of laws that allow members of the taxpaying public to see for themselves what their government is doing. Before I get into specific bills, I want to point out just how easy it was for people to watch the 2007 Legislature in action and follow the bills every step of the way.

The Legislative Counsel Bureau - the staff behind the scenes - does a remarkable job of showing meetings on the Internet, providing schedules, linking to bills and amendments and setting up videoconferences so Southern Nevada residents can testify without traveling to Carson City.

It works so smoothly that it's sometimes taken for granted. But never before have so many people been able to follow the Legislature so closely. That, to me, is what democracy is about.

Now for the bills:

• Assembly Bill 433, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Clark County, applies the state's open-meetings law to state Tax Commission hearings on taxpayer appeals.

The Tax Commission still can go into closed session to hear confidential information from a taxpayer, so it protects the privacy of individuals or companies whose financial records or trade secrets may be part of the testimony.

Who cares? Most people, thankfully, will never need to appeal to the Tax Commission. But taxpayers were footing the bill for both sides in a dispute between the commission and the Attorney General's Office that was headed for the Supreme Court. And the issue arose when the Tax Commission reportedly granted a utility company millions of dollars in refunds during a closed meeting.

• Senate Bill 123, sponsored by Sen. Terry Care, D-Clark County, strengthens the open-records law. It does so mainly by setting a deadline of five days for government officials to respond to a written request for an official record, such as minutes from a meeting.

Within five days, the government must grant the request, explain why it is denying the request because the record is confidential, or set a schedule for when it can respond. Sometimes, records are kept in several places, or people request volumes of historical records, or a part of the document has confidential information such as Social Security numbers.

Who cares? If you've ever had to hire a lawyer to go to court to get access to a government document, then you care. By and large, Nevada agencies routinely respond to requests for documents and reports with no problem. It was the exceptions - the ones that disappeared with no response at all, because there was no such requirement in law - that drew Sen. Care's attention.

The law also says that records closed at least 30 years ago can be reopened.

• Assembly Bill 261, also sponsored by Buckley, opens records on child deaths. It toughens the reporting and investigating procedures on child fatalities and near fatalities, and requires agencies to release information to the public such as previous investigations on abuse or neglect, the age of the child, where the incident happened and the cause of the fatality.

Who cares? Anybody shocked to learn that far more children were dying in Nevada than people realized.

Part of the problem was that reports on child deaths or near-fatal injuries weren't being shared, with the public or with other agencies. There was little accountability, particularly in Clark County, for who was following up on reports and investigations.

And most important, because so many reports were being tucked away in file cabinets, nobody realized the scope of the problem or whether anything was being done to solve it - until legislators started demanding answers.

• Assembly Bill 519, sponsored by the Assembly Judiciary Committee and carried by Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Washoe County, would have limited the ability of courts to seal their case files, but it died in a Senate committee.

This would be a clear defeat for an attempt to open up the judicial branch of government, except that the Nevada Supreme Court has taken up the cause. The court appointed a special commission to come up with rules for when court files can be closed.

Who cares? Much of the discussion here was about product liability cases - when a customer files a lawsuit claiming that a company's product malfunctioned and hurt him. The company might be more willing to pay a settlement if the customer agrees to seal the case file so nobody else finds out.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal had reported 115 cases in Clark County had been sealed - and the public doesn't know why or what they're about.

With no specific rules in place, judges weren't required to ask a straightforward question: Is there a benefit to the public in keeping this court file unsealed? The commission will come up with the rules.

There can be no trust in government without transparency in government. The 2007 Legislature drew back the blinds to shed some light on a few of the darker corners.

• Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

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The Nevada Appeal Updated Jun 9, 2007 03:23PM Published Jun 8, 2007 03:00AM Copyright 2007 The Nevada Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.