Barry Smith: Legislature is a contradiction in open government | NevadaAppeal.com

Barry Smith: Legislature is a contradiction in open government

Barry Smith
Special to the Nevada Appeal

“Public body” does not include the Legislature of the State of Nevada.

That’s what the law says, right there in NRS 241.015 – part of the statute known as the Open Meeting Law.

If you look just one section above it, you’ll find these words: “In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that all public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it?

This is Sunshine Week, the annual occasion for writing about openness in government. It’s also two weeks after the Legislature adjourned its special session, which was largely an exercise in public show and private debate.

So there’s no better time to address two glaring exceptions to open government written into Nevada law. One is the Legislature, and the second is collective bargaining by public employees.

Inside the Legislative Building those last few days of February, several people were laboring to find solutions to the state’s gaping budget hole. Most, however, were simply waiting to be told what was going on.

Make no mistake. There was loads of information, much of it delivered in public hearings that people could attend or watch live on the Internet. You could listen to hours of testimony on the dire status of education, social services and almost everything else funded by taxpayer dollars.

There were also opportunities to participate, when members of the public – lobbyists, mostly – sat at tables in front of the Assembly or Senate and described their financial woes, gave their opinions and offered their suggestions.

What the public did not have, however, was a seat at the table – the one where the deals were made. Instead, the public – reporters, mainly – waited outside for hours for a chance to ask what went on inside.

In the end, the details emerged, there was opportunity for discussion and those elected officials registered their votes for all (who were awake at 2 a.m.) to see.

Yet, there is a big gap in our understanding of the final pieces of legislation that set the course for the state. We can only speculate as to what went on in those closed meetings, and that’s not how government is supposed to operate.

In the Legislature’s own words, the intent of the law is “that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

The six-day special session also provided examples of why the Legislature has chosen to exempt itself from the Open Meeting Law.

The law contains specific requirements for meetings, including written notice three days in advance. In a 120-day regular session, let alone a six-day special session, it’s often impractical and inefficient to wait three days to have a meeting.

The solution, of course, is for the Legislature to exempt itself from a few rules. It’s far better to apply a bit of common sense than to encode into state law a patently untrue statement such as “Public Body does not include the Legislature of the State of Nevada.”

Now that I’ve slapped the Legislature for its closed meetings, I want to offer a pat on the back for a little-noticed resolution adopted by both houses during the special session.

SCR1 calls for “increasing the transparency” of collective-bargaining negotiations by local governments and their employees. State law allows those sessions to be held behind closed doors without, as the resolution notes, “the opportunity for the public to raise meaningful questions and offer input.”

As we know from the deficit debates, most of the money in most of the budgets goes for workers’ pay. The people not at the table in these negotiations, unfortunately, are the ones paying the bills.

In all discussions regarding open government, the whole concept revolves around trust. The key to trust is transparency throughout the process, not just when it is convenient.

• Barry Smith, former editor of the Nevada Appeal, is executive director of the Nevada Press Association.