Everybody benefits from new and improved public records law

By Patrick File

Among the Nevada Press Association’s six “First Amendment Champions”—announced at their annual convention on Sept. 21—were several whose bipartisan work drawing together a diverse group of stakeholders helped improve the state’s public records law. The fruit of their labors, SB 287, went into effect Oct. 1, and while journalists will certainly benefit from a better Nevada Public Records Act, we should all be thankful for a law that makes access to public information cheaper, more user-friendly, and more accountable. 

The awardees included Tod Story, executive director of the Nevada ACLU, who helped launch the grassroots effort that drew from across the ideological and issue-oriented spectrum, as well as state Sens. David Parks, Melanie Scheible, and Ben Kieckhefer, who bridged party lines and worked with various constituencies to find solutions amid a contentious legislative process. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Gov. Steve Sisolak were also honored for their part in making sure the bill crossed the finish line.

From the sidelines of the process (I testified in support of the original bill but played no role its crafting), it was heartening to see good faith efforts from all sides—citizens, government administrators, legislators, public interest groups, and journalists—acknowledging the challenges facing government agencies as well as all kinds of regular folks seeking access to information about their government. A symbol of this successful process was the city of Reno quietly dropping its opposition to the bill after coming out strongly against it in an initial hearing

Of course, all of these laudable efforts—and associations’ kind words and awards—will be pointless if people don’t give life to the new law. Public records laws are for the public, after all, and the reforms of SB 287 will make it easier for you and me to get the information we need to access government services and assess the effectiveness of their administration. 

For example, in addition to providing helpful information about records requests on their websites, many government agencies pride themselves on being open and communicative in helping requesters clarify their needs. Now that practice is legally required, as government agencies must be expeditious in explaining records’ availability or lack thereof, and must “make a reasonable effort to assist the requester … in such a manner as to maximize the likelihood” they will have prompt access to records. To cut against large fees that can turn requesters away, the law clarifies that the government can only charge for the “actual cost” of its response–things like ink, paper, and postage. And if a record is in a digital format, and requesters ask that it be sent to them electronically, agencies must do that. Excessive fees or delays can now be the basis for a legal appeal over a records request, beyond the typical suit filed when a request is denied. And if a government agency “willfully” violates the public records act, it can trigger escalating fines from $1,000 to $10,000.

We all win when our government is able to be more responsive to our needs, which is really what open government laws are all about. A more functional, user-friendly Nevada Public Records Act, which offers the means to prod the odd official who prizes secrecy over transparency, can empower us all with the ability to inform ourselves and our neighbors, make government more effective and efficient and transform any of us into “First Amendment Champions.”

Patrick File is assistant professor of media law at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.