Posts Tagged ‘Barry Smith’

Survey Of State Lawmakers, Candidates Shows Support For Continued Government Transparency Efforts

By Sean Whaley | 2:00 am May 23rd, 2012

CARSON CITY – Sixty state lawmakers and legislative candidates who responded to a survey on government transparency largely favor new laws requiring the Legislature to follow the Open Meeting Law and mandating expanded reporting of spending on legislators by lobbyists.

The survey, sponsored by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Nevada Press Association, also saw broad support for imposing a 72-hour time frame so the public can read bills before they go to a floor vote, subjecting local government negotiations with public employee unions to the state Open Meeting Law and assessing penalties for government officials who violate Nevada’s public records laws.

Illustration by David Vignoni, Ysangkok via Wikimedia Commons.

The survey was sent to 153 candidates and eight state Senators who are not up for re-election this year. Forty-one Republicans, 14 Democrats and five minor party candidates responded.

This survey is intended to give the voters a chance to find out where candidates stand on transparency issues including public records, open meetings and campaign finance reforms.

“I think it ought to be a very important issue for voters,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the press association. “That’s why we do this; so that they know who has it on their priority list.”

Advocates of increased transparency in government say the responses suggest that further progress can be made on the issues in the 2013 session of the Nevada Legislature.

“We’ve been able to move forward with Open Meeting Law, Open Records Law; the campaign finance does show some improvement,” Smith said. “That’s another thing these surveys showed – there is quite a bit of work to do and there is quite a bit of work the Legislature can do.”

Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director at NPRI, said at least 50 of the 60 responses were either in favor of or leaning in favor of the proposals, suggesting there is a good chance for further progress for increased government transparency in the upcoming session.

The new requirements for campaign contribution and expense reports adopted in the 2011 session were part of the 2010 survey, suggesting the effort is having some influence, he said.

“A lot of these other ideas were embodied into bills; they just never passed the Legislature,” Lawrence said. “So hopefully that will happen this time.”

The survey comes just as Republican Assembly caucus leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, announced several transparency reforms he will seek in the 2013 session. Hickey responded to the survey, indicating support for the various proposals with a “lean yes” on applying the Open Meeting Law to the Legislature. He indicated some flexibility may be required for the proposal, given the 120-day time limit the Legislature has to finish its business.

While most survey responses were supportive without qualification, there were also a few “maybes” and some opposition to the proposals.

Former state Senator Sheila Leslie, a Democrat who resigned her seat in mid-term to run for the Senate 15 seat now held by Republican Greg Brower, did not favor subjecting collective bargaining negotiations to public scrutiny.

“I don’t think inviting TV cameras into negotiations with public employee unions is in the best interest of government,” she said. “There needs to be more transparency and communication but making everything subject to the Open Meeting Law is not necessarily good government. This is one of those instances.”

Leslie was not alone in expressing concerns about the proposal.

Reno Republican Assembly 31 candidate David Espinosa said: “Negotiations, by their nature, are sensitive matters that an open meeting inclusion would transform into an entrenchment of sides, and an opportunity for grandstanding and demagoguery. I would instead support all efforts to openly disclose the starting positions of both sides of the negotiation, and the final position of each of the representatives of the local government.”

Lawrence said the issue is more problematic for some candidates and elected officials because of the support they get from public sector labor unions, which generally oppose such proposals.

Others are more bipartisan in nature, such as the proposal to require reporting of spending by lobbyists on lawmakers all year round and not just during each legislative session.

Leslie sponsored the bill in 2011 that would have required lobbyists to report all spending on lawmakers, not just spending during a legislative session. Senate Bill 206 passed the Senate unanimously but died in an Assembly committee without a vote.

Smith said the goal is to keep moving forward with incremental successes.

“To me it should be obvious that open government is a bipartisan kind of thing that people can agree on that that’s what we want,” he said. “There’s not always agreement on exactly how you get there. But as long as people think it’s important and are willing to work on it, then we will move forward with some of these things.”


Audio clips:

Barry Smith of the Nevada Press Association says the survey results should be very important to voters:

052312Smith1 :12 their priority list.”

Smith says the surveys show a lot more work needs to be done in the areas of government transparency:

052312Smith2 :26 Legislature can do.”

Smith says open government is a bipartisan issue:

052312Smith3 :21 of these things.”

Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director at the NPRI, says the survey has some influence with lawmakers:

052312Lawrence1 :24 happen this time.”

Lawrence says opening public employee labor negotiations to public scrutiny is one of the more problematic transparency issues:

052312Lawrence2 :29 that position, probably.”



Legislative Panel Agrees To Review New Public Records Policy

By Sean Whaley | 4:43 pm October 26th, 2011

CARSON CITY – A panel of lawmakers agreed today to review its new policy on responding to public records requests after concerns were raised by the ACLU of Nevada.

Rebecca Gasca, legislative and policy director for the organization, told the Legislative Commission today that the new policy says that those seeking public records from the Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB) need to explain why they want the information when making requests.

The policy, adopted in August, improperly shifts the burden to the person requesting the public records to show that the need for the information is stronger than any public policy interest in keeping the information confidential, she said.

Gasca had already sent a letter to the commission from ACLU General Counsel Allen Lichtenstein explaining the concerns with the new policy in detail.

Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, a member of the commission, asked that the new policy be reviewed at its next meeting.

Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, called today for a review of the new public records policy. / Photo: Nevada News Bureau.

“We did kind of, as I recall, went through it kind of quickly,” he said. “And there is some verbiage in it that I think we probably ought to review to see if it is a little too vague and a little too open ended.”

Gasca said the new policy would incorrectly apply a Nevada Supreme Court ruling in Donrey of Nevada v. Bradshaw and impose a “balancing test” to determine if the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the public interest served by not releasing the information.

The balancing test referenced in the court case applied to requests for criminal information, not general public records requests, she said.

“The policy of LCB that you passed at the last commission meeting actually broadly expands upon that and specifically states that requestors need to put in why they are requesting something so the LCB can balance those interests,” Gasca said.

While there was a comment from LCB Director Lorne Malkiewich that the new requirement will not be used as a basis for denying requests, this statement of intent was not included in the new policy, she said.

Concerns about the new policy have also previously been expressed by Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

In response to the ACLU letter, Malkiewich said the new policy, “was not proposed in an effort to restrict public access, but rather to reflect the state of the law and allow us to continue our practice of prompt, complete response to requests for public records.”

“In summary, the policy that I proposed and the Legislative Commission adopted does not conflict with state law; it reflects what the Nevada Supreme Court has recognized to be the state of the law,” he said. “We will not reject a request for failure to include such a statement, but a clear explanation of a particular public interest may tip the balance in favor of disclosure of a document that might not otherwise be disclosed.”


Audio clips:

ACLU representative Rebecca Gasca said the new legislative public records policy needs to be revisited:

102611Gasca :23 Nevada Supreme Court.”

Assemblyman Ira Hansen called for a review of the new policy:

102611Hansen :10 too open ended.”

Updated Public Employee Salary And Benefit Data Published By Nevada Think Tank

By Sean Whaley | 2:01 am July 19th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Anyone with an interest in what Nevada’s state and local government employees make in salary and benefits can review the 2010 data that has been posted today by a  Nevada think tank.

The searchable database at Transparent Nevada does not yet contain all the local government salary information because not all cities and counties have responded, said Victor Joecks, communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

But most of the major cities and counties, as well as the state colleges and universities and the state of Nevada, have provided the data as requested, he said.

The Clark County School District provided its data as well, although NPRI is still waiting on the Clark County information, Joecks said.

“We certainly appreciate all the jurisdictions that were helpful and sent the data as we requested and as they are obligated to by state law,” he said. “We will continue with some of the places that haven’t sent us the data; we’ll continue following up and looking at that data as the year goes on.”

The data can be searched by name, occupation or in order of highest pay. Salaries and benefits, when provided, are listed separately, along with a column showing total compensation.

A Nevada think tank has added 2010 public employee salary information to its website.

Joecks said some jurisdictions only provide base pay amounts, even though benefits, which can be as much as 40 percent or more of a public employee’s salary, is important information as well.

Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said the site is useful for the press and the public. NPRI is a member of the association.

“It goes beyond just being there and being available,” he said. “Government websites post a lot of information, but NPRI collects the data, exposes it and promotes it.”

The site allows the public to view the information and draw their own conclusions about public salaries and benefits, Smith said.

A search of the site shows that many of the top paid public officials in Nevada work for the Nevada System of Higher Education, including University of Nevada, Reno head football coach Chris Ault, who earned nearly $527,000 in compensation in 2010.

For some higher education employees however, the salaries can reflect alternate sources of income that do not come from state taxpayers.

In some other cases salaries were inflated because employees were retiring and received unused sick leave and vacation pay.

One example is Joseph Forti, who took a buyout last year and retired as North Las Vegas chief of police. His 2010 salary is listed at just under $76,000, but total compensation is listed at $733,000. His compensation in 2010 included $333,000 in sick leave pay, $43,000 in annual leave and nearly $231,000 in a category called “Premium, Certification, Bonus and Other.”

Pay for fire fighters, which has been a hot button issue in Southern Nevada, is included in the database as well, but only for North Las Vegas and Henderson so far. The data does show that benefits make up a big part of a fire fighter’s pay.

More than 30 North Las Vegas firefighters earned in excess of $140,000 a year in pay and benefits, according to the information provided by city officials and posted on the site.

“It’s just kind of incredible all the ways that government employees get paid,” Joecks said. “It’s not just about their salary, it’s not just about their benefits, it’s not just about their salary, benefits and retirement. All of a sudden you’re getting $200,000 when you retire and that’s something that doesn’t happen in the private sector.”

Audio clips:

NPRI spokesman Victor Joecks says most large jurisdictions have provided the requested information:

071911Joecks1 :23 year goes on.”

Joecks says compensation for public sector workers is more generous than found in the private sector:

071911Joecks2 :20 the private sector.”




Accessibility or Agenda Setting? Democrats Holding Frequent Press Briefings

By Andrew Doughman | 4:12 pm February 15th, 2011

CARSON CITY – A coffee shop across the street from the Legislature announces “let the games begin.”

With the Legislature in session for less than two weeks, Democratic legislators seem to be playing the game well.

They have called the press corps to briefings during three of the past four working days to showcase meetings or bills they’d like to advance.

This has helped them steer news coverage to the bills they’d like Nevadans to pay attention to, even though some of the journalists among the capitol press corps have neither attended the briefings nor written stories about the bills.

“We want to highlight a few bills,” said Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas at today’s press briefing where Assembly Democrats announced a school retrofit proposal and a bill related to trade. “We’d like to meet with you every week … We want to get some of our proposals out.”

He said the strategy has been effective so far, citing an example from last week when Democrats held a press conference for a jobs bill that was well-covered in the press.

“It helps to draw attention to the issues that they want to keep raising before the public, so I don’t think it hurts them at all to keep doing that,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

Oceguera later said the Senate and Assembly Democrats plan to have weekly press briefings Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

On one hand, the conferences could allow legislators to help steer public debate, thereby setting the agenda for what is, and what is not, important. On the other hand, reporters are free to choose whether or not they should pursue the story offered to them at the press conference. It’s the old debate about what constitutes news and who should decide what news is.

Whether the answer is the politicians, the people or the press, frequent media conferences do allow the journalists easy access to lawmakers. The meetings promote government transparency.

“Speaking in general, I like the idea of the accessibility, and you can always ask a question that’s not related to the subject of the press conference,” said Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I’d say the more the merrier.”

The frequent press conferences also allow spin-off conversations between legislators and reporters to continue after the inevitable “last question” announcement signals the end of the formal media briefing.

“I often like press conferences more than press releases because I can’t talk back to press releases,” Ceppos said.

The Democratic strategy mirrors the policy next door at the Capitol building. Gov. Brian Sandoval sends his senior adviser, Dale Erquiaga, to take questions from the press every Monday.

“It’s a good way for the governor to communicate with the press as well as answer all the questions you all might have,” said Mary-Sarah Kinner, Sandoval’s press secretary.

Kinner helped arrange the Monday meeting time to fit reporters’ schedules.

Republicans at the Legislature are using a different strategy.

“We try to hold a press conference when we really have something to say,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, clarifying afterward that he didn’t mean Democrats have nothing to say.

“It’s just early,” he said. “It’s only day seven.”

Psst: They’re Always Watching: New Lawmakers Get Education On Dealing With Media

By Andrew Doughman | 6:05 pm January 21st, 2011

New state legislators got the low-down this past Friday about how to deal with the press. The theme woven throughout the legislative training seminar was one of transparency.

“They’re lurking,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, while addressing about 20 new legislators in the Assembly chamber. “Being able to watch all the (legislative) hearings and click through the channels, there are eyes on you all the time.”

Smith pointed out that while many new lawmakers probably encountered the media during their campaigns, the press at the capitol is a different beast.

Ben Kieckhefer, a newly-elected Republican senator from Reno, noted that reporters were using Twitter at that very moment to comment on the goings-on at their seminar.

With reporters able to tune in and Tweet out the news, the press at the capitol could be more omnipresent.

“It’s a different world with Twitter and Facebook and all the jazz,” said Bob Fisher, president of the Nevada Broadcasters Assocation.

Smith also cautioned legislators that they should remember the cameras that broadcast hearings are always running.

“They can tell whether you’re playing solitaire or not,” he said.

During these next few weeks, new legislators will be getting used to new homes, new offices and hundreds of new faces. The training session regarding the press was the last class for the newcomers; they’d been in various classes for three days straight. All of this to ensure that they’re ready for day one.

As the last day wore down, Fisher told legislators they should be aware of the different types of journalists they’re likely to encounter.

“There’s a spectacular difference,” he said. “It is so far between a journalist who has the opportunity to write opinions and share opinions … from a reporter who is coming in and asking you a question about a legislation that you are supporting.”

Like all relationships, Smith explained, the relationships between legislators and the press must be built on trust.

The national reporter who calls a legislator about a bill and is only looking for a good quote doesn’t care about trust. That reporter will never talk to that legislator again.

It’s a different situation when the local reporter sees and talks to legislators everyday, Smith said.

In that situation, legislators were taught about the various gradations between “on the record” and “off the record.”

When the session ended late Friday afternoon, legislators turned out for dinner. Walking out of the Assembly chamber next to this reporter, one new legislator jokingly said that he would have to be “careful” after listening to all that advice.

Contested Public Records Cases Could End Up Costing Storey County Taxpayers

By Sean Whaley | 1:31 pm October 5th, 2010

CARSON CITY – A Fallon attorney who has won two public records cases against Storey County is asking the Nevada Supreme Court to require the local government to pay his requested fees and costs for bringing the actions.

Attorney Martin Crowley said two different district judges who ruled in his favor in the public records cases awarded only $2,500 each in fees and costs, far less than requested for the time spent on the matters.

In the first of the cases dating to 2009 against the Storey County Clerk, Crowley said his fees exceeded $40,000 and he asked for $25,000. First Judicial District Judge James Wilson called the fee request “excessive and unreasonable.”

The request in the second case against the Storey County Assessor’s Office was for just under $9,000.

If Crowley gets a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, the actions by Storey County officials to fight the public records requests could end up costing local taxpayers a substantial sum.

Crowley said the failure to award appropriate fees and costs would be a blow to the public’s efforts to obtain public records. Requiring a local government or agency to pay reasonable court costs is an incentive to make public documents available as required by state law, he said.

“If they don’t have to pay there is no cost to them to refuse documents when they are properly requested,” Crowley said. “Both of these entities could have settled out for dirt cheap if they would have just turned over the documents and paid the fees.”

Crowley said the first case could have been settled for less than $4,000. Because the county continued to challenge the matter, however, and the court ordered additional hearings, the costs rose substantially.

In the first case, Crowley said Storey County not only failed to provide the records sought by Druscilla Thyssen  and Joe Panicaro until ordered to do so by the court, but it spent $18,000 to hire private legal counsel to fight the request.

Thyssen had sought information provided by other Storey County property owners who were successful in lowering their tax bills after failing to get her own tax bill reduced. Thyssen and Panicaro tried for six months to get the records without success, Crowley said.

Thyssen ultimately won a reduction in an appeal to the state tax board.

The Storey County District Attorney’s office defended the second case in a records request by Panicaro, which initially involved fees of only about $1,100.

The government entities balked at paying the modest fees, and in so doing forced the matters into the courts and the costs to go up, Crowley said.

Storey County Deputy District Attorney Laura Grant said there were legitimate issues in the county recorder case, including whether a public records request had actually been submitted. She also said there was some confusion because of a change to the public records law by the 2007 Legislature.

Grant said her understanding is that the Supreme Court has limited options in dealing with the fees. The court could remand the matter back to the district judge to reconsider the fee request, she said.

The private attorney representing the county in the other case could not be reached for comment.

Nevada’s public records law presumes all information is public unless there is a specific statute exempting the information from release for privacy or other valid reasons. The law requires requests to be honored within five working days. If a request is rejected the public agency must cite the Nevada statute making the records confidential. Those making requests can be charged for the cost of copies.

It also requires payment of costs and reasonable attorneys fees to the prevailing side in a legal action.

Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said if a public records request is denied the only recourse is to take the matter to court which is a financial barrier for most people.

Legitimate fees and costs associated with such cases have to be recognized by the courts, he said.

“What public officials need to realize is that these are public records,” Smith said. “They aren’t the government’s records. People don’t realize governments are using their tax dollars to fight against their own interests.”

Crowley said there wouldn’t even be a legal case if officials had followed the state law on public records requests and made the requested information available to the two county residents.

Crowley is attempting to consolidate the two cases before the Supreme Court because they involve similar issues. He has alerted Nevada media entities of the cases and is asking for support in the form of “friend of the court” briefs where groups and individuals not actually involved in a case can still weigh in on the legal issues.

Crowley said there are other public records cases he could pursue, but he can’t afford to take them until the fee issue has been resolved.

Audio clips:

Attorney Martin Crowley says his client attempted for six months to get public records without success:

100510Crowley1 :17 for six months.”

Crowley says requiring government entities to pay court fees and costs ensures they will comply with the public records law:

100510Crowley3 :13 paid the fees.”

Crowley says he will emphasize to the Nevada Supreme Court the cases could have been resolved at a much lower cost:

100510Crowley3 :13 paid the fees.”