Advocates seek to cut through exceptions

A legislative blunder gave Nevada a tough open-meeting law 30 years ago. Now, open-government advocates hope to see a deliberate, positive move by state lawmakers to improve the state's open-records laws.

"There are so many exceptions in Nevada law, it's sometimes difficult for county clerks and state bureaucrats to know what they can and can't release," says Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

"We need to cut through the thicket of exceptions, and we need to make it clear that records are open unless there's a very specific exception in Nevada statutes."

Under SB123, sponsored by state Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, a former journalist, government agencies in Nevada would have to follow strict timelines in responding to public records requests. Agencies that denied requests would have to cite specific statutes allowing them to withhold a record.

Several representatives of government agencies are seeking changes in the bill or are opposing it - an indication of what Smith describes as an all-too-common attitude among bureaucrats that records requests are "a pain in the neck."

Besides the concerns of some government agencies, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, has said the bill favors record requesters and may put too much of a burden on an agency. He thinks requests should be made in writing the requesters should pay costs of getting the documents.

Care says public records requests should be considered part of government workers' everyday business. And Smith says excessive fees can discourage people from "trying to get hold of information that belongs to them."

There were many complaints in 1977, after tired lawmakers approved a new open-meeting law, that its requirements would inhibit the abilities of local governments to conduct business. A drafting error left in place wording that made the law the toughest in the nation at the time.

The law stayed on the books, although there have been continuing efforts to seek new exceptions. That includes a new bill, AB61, which would enable the state Parole Board to hold closed meetings in certain cases "for safety reasons."

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