The Nevada Legislature heard testimony regarding Senate Bill 287 on Wednesday, April 3, which would make public records easier to access by holding those who handle public records requests accountable, limiting the price to access public records and helping citizens access records. The Nevada Sagebrush stands with the organizations backing the bill, Right to Know Nevada, the Reno Gazette-Journal and other publications to make SB 287 law.
SB 287 has three components to make public records more accessible: limit the price to access public records, help citizens request public records and punish agencies refusing to comply with public records requests.
The price of public records makes it so that those who have expendable money to spend on access can see them, but mostly deters those with little to no money to spend on public records from seeing them. This includes local newsrooms, which have declining budgets and cannot always spend $45 on one record, contributing to the decline of local news. With limited public record access, watchdog reporters cannot hold public officials and agencies accountable for their actions, leading to potential corruption.
In Reno, it costs $45 to access a Reno Police Department report — the highest of any law enforcement agency in Nevada. The price of the reports has been brought up by reporters, media and the public as a way to limit access. Recently, the City of Reno has considered lowering the price of the reports to $20. Still, this is five times the $9 price tag of the reports in 2017.
There is usually a printing fee built into the access fee for public records. In the day and age of the internet and personal computers, there is no reason for a printing fee, as most records can be sent via email in .pdf form — requiring the agency to print nothing. If anything, access fees should be dropping.
The second component of the bill is to provide assistance to those who want to request public records but don’t know how. This is vitally important because while journalists are usually trained in school, and at least in the field,on how to request public records, general citizens who do not do this every day might need or want assistance. Putting aside the obvious need to increase media literacy, much of the public is unaware they are able to access information from the government and its agencies, and do not always know how to go about requesting records.
Access to information and accountability is vital for a healthy democracy, and unless the records are denied for a legal, legitimate reason, they should be easy to access. It is important the government provides assistance on how to obtain public records and assist in making Nevada’s democracy more transparent.
Those who actively work against transparency in the government needs to be held accountable. Too many times have journalists taken to Twitter to vent about how they may never hear back from an agency about their public records requests. There are nine reasons why requests can be denied, but even if the request is outside these exemptions, requests are not always honored. Currently, there is no punishment for that unless the person or organization requesting the information want to sue for the records. Since record fees are an issue, suing is a financial unlikelihood in most cases. There needs to be another way to make sure agencies are doing their duty.
This was the case after the October 1 shooting in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was forced to provide records pertaining to the shooting that clarified and confirmed basic facts. Considering the number of people affected by the shooting, including approximately a third of students at this university who are from Las Vegas, the public deserved to know exactly what happened that night and what the investigation found. They should not be forced to go to court to know this information.
Public record requests are vital to the function of democracy, and the Nevada Legislature needs to recognize the importance of the transparency and access this bill would afford the public.
The Editorial Board can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.