Guest column: A citizen’s guide to Nevada’s open-government laws
Do you know your rights when it comes to requesting government records or attending meetings in Nevada? Here’s a quick guide in honor of Sunshine Week, which runs March 16-22.
Who can request records? Anybody. Unlike a handful of states, Nevada has no restriction on access to public records. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld a Virginia law that allows only residents of that state to get certain documents there, but Nevada’s law contains no such barrier.
What records can I get? The statute (NRS 239) has a fundamental statement: “unless otherwise declared by law to be confidential, all public books and public records of a governmental entity must be open at all times during office hours to inspection by any person.”
Over the years there have been many exceptions placed in the law — most of them to protect an individual’s privacy. For example, you can’t get a list of books checked out by someone from the local library. On the other hand, justification for some exceptions isn’t so apparent. Complaints to the Nevada Funeral Board are confidential.
How do I request a public record? You can call, send an email, write a letter or show up at a government office. I recommend putting your request in writing, if it’s anything more than the simplest request, so you have a dated copy of it. Your request should be as specific as possible.
The state is in the process of adopting regulations that will create a form for requesting state records, and every agency must designate someone to respond to those requests. You can still make a verbal request or simply write a letter.
How long does it take to get the records I want? The law says the government must respond within five business days. That response, however, may say that agency doesn’t have the documents, or it’s going to take longer to make it available.
The agency also could respond that the document is confidential and won’t be released. If that’s the case, the agency must cite the specific law or legal authority that makes it confidential.
What can I do if I’m turned down? You may be able to narrow your request, or work with the government agency to figure out what is available as a public record. Ultimately, though, if you believe the documents you seek are public records, you’ll have to go to court to seek a judge’s order.
How much do copies cost? The price is supposed to be no more than the “actual cost” of making copies, according to the law. But Nevada governments charge a wide range of prices. They must post a list of copy charges, and you’d be wise to ask in advance.
Are there any meetings of a public body I can’t attend? Under NRS 241, there are only a couple of instances when a public body may meet in private. One allows a board to meet with its attorney to discuss potential or existing litigation. Also, the Nevada Legislature is not subject to the Open Meeting Law.
There are, however, some occasions when a public board may close a portion of its meeting. One example is to consider possible misconduct or the mental health of an individual, other than an elected official or public officer.
There’s a lot more to Nevada’s records and meetings statutes. I encourage you to become familiar with them.
Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right. Learn more at http://www.sunshineweek.org.