Barry Smith: 2009 Legislature made strides toward open government | NevadaAppeal.com

Barry Smith: 2009 Legislature made strides toward open government

Barry Smith
For the Nevada Appeal

One of the measures of a Nevada legislative session is whether lawmakers made government more open or more secretive.

In the 2009 session, although they missed some opportunities, legislators generally advanced the cause of open government. For one, they restored your right to free speech – even if you never realized it had been taken away.

Assembly Bill 496, approved by both houses of the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jim Gibbons, revises the process of disciplining judges. It gets rid of a law that said you couldn’t tell anyone if you filed a complaint with the Judicial Discipline Commission against a judge.

Nobody ever actually had been punished for violating it. Still, it’s a good idea to get unconstitutional laws off the books.

Sometimes, it’s what legislators don’t do that helps keep government open and accessible. For example, they didn’t approve SB32, which would have closed the evaluations of city and county managers.

The arguments for the bill went something like this: City councils and county commissioners may feel more comfortable being frank in a personnel evaluation of their top managers if they can do it in private.

I can’t really disagree with that observation. Still, these are public officials whose biggest decision in any given year is probably whether to keep or fire the manager – and why. That people may be uncomfortable isn’t enough to keep the discussion behind closed doors. In my mind, it’s all the more reason to do it in public.

AB99 was a bill that, while I understood the intent behind it, presented a dilemma. It would have allowed judges to create “fictitious” addresses for themselves on some public documents so they couldn’t be stalked by people wanting to do them harm.

I hate the thought of people using public documents to help stalk a judge. But I could never reconcile the idea of judges, who demand the whole truth and nothing but the truth, being able to propagate a legal falsehood. The bill was approved in the Assembly but never came to a vote in the Senate.

The Legislature missed an opportunity to expand open government with a bill requiring more of its discussions of controversial tax plans be in public. Although there were formal opportunities for debate and public comment, we know that much among legislators went on behind closed doors.

Reporters would stand outside the meetings of the “core group” and ask what happened that day. What the public missed, however, was the back-and-forth exchanges among our key elected officials over the biggest issues of the session.

The 2009 Legislature made a few significant strides forward on open government, and no steps backward. On some issues when it had chances to progress, though, it’s still limping along.

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