Lawmakers review plan to improve public records access
Associated Press Writer
Government agencies in Nevada would have to follow strict timelines when responding to public records requests, under a proposal debated Monday in a state Senate committee.
The proposal by Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, would give government agencies just two business days to respond to a public records request by either complying with the request, denying it, or asking for an extension of up to eight more days in “extraordinary circumstances.”
The law is necessary because agencies will sometimes ignore public record requests, forcing the requesting person to go to the time and expense of a lawsuit, Care, a lawyer and former journalist, told the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
Care cited recent newspaper articles claiming that University Medical Center in Las Vegas and Clark County’s Department of Family Services failed to provide complete and timely records to Las Vegas newspapers.
Under his SB123, agencies that denied requests would have to cite a specific statute that allows them to withhold a record.
The bill also allows the public to apply to district courts, asking to inspect confidential records that are more than 10 years old.
The bill would not change existing definitions of what is or is not a public record under state law, and the courts would remain the final arbiter of records disputes.
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, endorsed the bill, saying Nevada’s existing open records laws lack accountability, and that agencies sometimes withhold whole documents instead of doing simple redacting.
“We now have situations around the state in which entire documents are being withheld because they may contain a single Social Security Number,” said Smith. “I have heard from several members of the Press Association that records requests too often simply go unanswered. The only recourse is to go to court.”
Several representatives of government agencies asked for changes to the bill, or spoke in opposition.
Paul Lipparelli, a deputy Washoe County district attorney, said the request for documents itself should be a confidential document. He urged lawmakers to reconsider the timelines, saying that large requests could make local government grind to a halt.
“Two days is an awfully short period of time to respond to a records request that could involve thousands of pages of documents,” said Lipparelli. “We have experience with some folks who like to put local government to the test. We’re concerned about the extreme penalty that results from the failure to comply.”
John Redlein, assistant Las Vegas city attorney, said the bill was conceptually flawed, and would order the declassification of some public records that are not given out for good public policy reasons. Those records are “an unwritten exception to the black-and-white rule” of what is or is not a public record, he said.