The Washoe County School Board is likely getting awfully tired of lawyers.
During the 2014 dispute with schools superintendent Pedro Martinez, the board’s lawyer promised to keep them in line with the open meeting law. He didn’t.
Then another lawyer, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, fined the members of the school board $1,500 each for the crime of obeying their lawyer’s advice, a breach of previous state open meeting policy. That breach was deemphasized by the Reno Gazette-Journal, which was demonizing the school board members.
And the private lawyers the school board members hired could not seem to back Cortez Masto off, even though she was on the record as saying that that “public bodies should be encouraged to rely upon advice of counsel and not be punished for doing so.” How does a lawyer blow a case in which opposing counsel has legal opinions like that out there?
Now comes another lawyer—the new attorney general, Adam Laxalt, who brought new charges against the school board.
On March 24 last year, the board appointed Traci Davis as school superintendent to replace Martinez. Literally within minutes, the board members were informed that the agenda item under which they acted did not include the appointment. The board then rescinded the appointment, and the matter was scheduled for a later meeting and a more complete agenda item.
Laxalt chose to go forward with a prosecution of an offense that was already corrected. And he reportedly acted against the advice of his own staff, which is more experienced in these matters than he is.
It is perfectly true that the law allows Laxalt to do what he did. It is also true that the attorney general’s job is to make sure that the open meeting law is followed, and that happened at the March 24 meeting. There are on record other instances of public bodies making such mistakes and then correcting them at later meetings—days or even weeks later. What the attorneys general cared about in those cases was that the law was observed, the action was corrected, and all players moved on without expensive legal proceedings. In this case, the board members chose not to fight Laxalt’s foolish action, and they have received praise for moving on instead of fighting an eminently winnable dispute.
Laxalt, like the Gazette-Journal, seems unaware that school boards are made up of everyday people who just want to spend some time serving the community, not professional politicians who make good targets. Indeed, every member of the school board has given more service to Nevada than Laxalt himself. He has scrambled for publicity at every opportunity in his short time in office, issuing press releases every time the sun goes behind a cloud (“Attorney General Laxalt Marks his 100th Day in Office”). But his craving for advancement should not include unnecessary legal actions and costs.
This is not a partisan thing. Democrat Cortez Masto and Republican Laxalt both grew up in political families, which may have a good deal to do with their handling of these cases. They may have been raised to accept the notion of criminalizing politics, but if they bring that notion into play at the school board level, then that level, too, will soon find the pool of people willing to run for these offices drying up.