Barry Smith: Want to access a government record? Just ask
March 15, 2014
Do you know your rights when it comes to requesting government records or attending meetings in Nevada?
Here's a quick guide in honor of Sunshine Week, which runs Monday through March 22.
Who can request records?
Anybody. Unlike a handful of states, Nevada has no restriction on access to public records.
What records can I get?
The statute NRS 239 has a fundamental statement: "unless otherwise declared by law to be confidential, all public books and public records of a governmental entity must be open at all times during office hours to inspection by any person."
Over the years there have been many exceptions placed in the law — most of them to protect an individual's privacy. For example, you can't get a list of books checked out by someone from the local library.
On the other hand, the justification for some of the exceptions isn't so apparent. Complaints to the Nevada Funeral Board are confidential.
How do I request a public record?
You can call, send an email, write a letter or show up at a government office. I recommend putting your request in writing if it's anything more than the simplest request; that way, you have a dated copy of it. Your request should be as specific as possible.
How long does it take to get the records I want?
The law says the government must respond within five business days. That response, however, may say that agency doesn't have the documents, or it's going to take longer to make it available.
The agency also could respond that the document is confidential and won't be released. If that's the case, the agency must cite the specific law or legal authority that makes it confidential.
What can I do if I'm turned down?
You may be able to narrow your request, or work with the government agency to figure out what is available as a public record. Ultimately, if you believe the documents you seek are public records, you'll have to go to court to seek a judge's order.
How much do copies cost?
The price for copies is supposed to be no more than the "actual cost" of making them, according to the law. But Nevada governments charge a wide range of prices. They must post a list of copy charges, and you'd be wise to ask in advance.
Are there any meetings of a public body I can't attend?
Under Nevada law (NRS 241), there are only a couple of instances in which a public body may meet in private. One allows a board to meet with its attorney to discuss potential or existing litigation. Also, the Nevada Legislature is not subject to the Open Meeting Law, although it adopts rules each session to open its meetings.
There are some occasions when a public board may close a portion of its meeting. One example is to consider possible misconduct or the mental health of an individual, other than an elected official or public officer.
Can I speak at public meetings?
Yes. Boards must provide a time for public comment at the beginning and end of meetings, or during discussion of each action item on the agenda before a vote takes place.
How do I know when meetings are scheduled?
Simply request to be notified. You'll get an agenda by mail, or by email if you want. Meeting notices also must be posted on a public body's website.
There's a lot more to Nevada's records and meetings statutes, and I encourage you to become familiar with them. These basics will get you started on learning how your government works.
Barry Smith is the executive director of the Nevada Press Association and former editor of the Nevada Appeal.