No One Is Safe When The Legislature Is In Session
by Molly Conklin
he citizens of the state of Nevada will never play a key role in the creation of public policy as long as Silver State legislators are allowed to conduct public business behind closed doors. In principle, Nevadas open meeting law has worked to bridge the gap that exists between the government and its people. In practice, while the legislature has created strict guidelines for public bodies to follow when conducting business, it has enabled itself to conduct public business without public knowledge or input. As a result, democracy is being compromisedbecause its inconvenient.
Since Nevadas open meeting law was drafted in 1960, it has been amended 16 times, doubling its length. The statutes introduction states simply that "all agencies, levels and echelons of government exist to aid in the conduct of the peoples business." If the legislature itself is not subject to this law, however, the people are excluded from the peoples business. We cease to be our own rulers when our business is conducted behind closed doors.
Responsibility in government is twofold. Elected officials are accountable to their constituents as public servants, and citizens are responsible for ensuring that those public officials carry out their duties honestly and openly. Legislation such as Nevadas open meeting law is an attempt to keep those basic democratic principles in effect.
Nevadas open meeting law is, in principle, one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation on the matter in the United States. The trouble lies in the fact that the state legislature is entirely exempt from the law it created. This exemption was a legislative reflex based upon prior experiencethe chaos usually characterizing a sessions end, when senate and assembly committees chronically have met late into the night. Compliance with chapter 241 of the Nevada Revised Statutes would require legislators to give three working days notice before meeting. Under recent practices, new bills were still being proposed in the last week, often enacted with no debate or even discussion. And even if any meeting was to be held, there was no time to let the public knoweven assuming the will to do so was there.
The Nevada Legislature has addressed this glaring problem on two separate occasions. The 1977 session radically changed the statute, defining several vague terms and, according to Assemblyman Pat Murphy, "giving strong direction to Nevadas open meeting law." However, testimony that year from Frank Daykin of the Legislative Counsel Bureau convincedor assuredthe assembly that it would take a constitutional rewrite to require the legislatures compliance:
The Constitution expressly provides that the meetings of the houses of the Legislature shall be open except when the Senate is meeting in Executive Session. There is nothing that can be done by statute either to add to that or take away from that provision regarding the Legislature itself. As to the committees, the Constitution expressly provides that each House shall establish the rules and the proceedings.
In 1991, Lieutenant Governor Sue Wagner sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 7, which allowed private meetings only when legislators were discussing personnel issues. She contacted Lorne Malkiewich at the Legislative Counsel Bureau, who sounded again Daykins sentiment from 14 years earlier that only a constitutional amendment could bind subsequent legislatures. But since joint resolutions have no force of law and merely reflect intent and sentiment, the passing of Senate Joint Resolution 7 was essentially a vacant exercise in public relations.
Kent Lauer of the Nevada Press Association points out that the legislature rarely even complies with its own quorum requirements. Lawmakers break into small groups to be briefed on issues, allowing citizens no input under the rationale that no "meeting" is actually occurring. The entire spirit of the law is thus jeopardized.
Requiring the legislature to organize its conduct of business would go a long way toward resolving this threat to democracy. Malkiewich has drafted a proposal that would require all new bills to be introduced by the 43rd day of the session. Bills not approved within 78 days would be dead. This simple policy would remove the problem that legislators claim is the reason for evading compliance with the open meeting law: those late-night marathons at the end of a session.
Nevadans who value democracy and open government need to vigilantly stand by Nevadas open meeting law. Without full knowledge of what our legislators are doing, we yield our sovereignty to those intended to serve us.u
Molly Conklin was on assignment at NPRI this summer as an intern from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.