Closed for (your) business

Our colleagues at the Reno Gazette-Journal last week editorialized about what a fine job this year’s Nevada Legislature did on open-government issues, passing laws applying the open meeting law to the Nevada Tax Commission, imposing a five-day deadline on state agencies to respond to public record requests, and opening records on child abuse-related deaths.

They apparently didn’t notice that the legislature itself held its most important debates in secret.

As originally drafted, the Nevada Constitution said that the two houses of the legislature must keep their doors open (except the Senate while sitting in executive session).

Legislators chose to interpret that as meaning only the full houses had to be open, not committee meetings.

So in 1994, the public voted to repeal the exception for executive sessions of the Senate and extend the ban on closed meetings to committees, adding this language: “The meetings of all legislative committees must be open to the public, except meetings held to consider the character, alleged misconduct, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person.”

It is said that those looking for loopholes in campaign finance laws are like water on a sidewalk—it will find every crack and crevice. Open meeting laws are like that. Just as legislative leaders chose to apply the original constitutional language only to the full houses, once the language was changed, they then moved the toughest decision-making out of committees (and out of the public eye) and into informal groups of leaders, excluding most legislators from the process.

Since these groups are not official bodies, the reasoning goes, it’s not the public’s business and so does not fall under the constitutional language.

These groups weren’t discussing national security or the sailing dates of troop transports. They weren’t talking about “the character, alleged misconduct, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person.” They weren’t even discussing legislative pay or pensions.

They were discussing the state schools budget, including whether to make Gov. Jim Gibbons’ “empowerment” schools a higher priority than schools with high dropout rates. There was no excuse for holding these sessions out of public view. By excluding other members of the committees, they reduced the legislative scrutiny budgets are supposed to get.

These actions were bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans were willing participants in cutting the public and the public’s representatives out of these secret sessions.

It’s good that the lawmakers impose open meeting requirements on other parts of the government. It’s unfortunate that they don’t feel any obligation to live under those provisions themselves.