RENO, Nev. (KRNV & MyNews4.com) - One of the most important parts of democracy is being able to check up on your government. But when you ask for documents to do that and they say no, what do you do? In Nevada there are not a lot of options of where to go for help.
Barry Lovgren is retired from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. He is investigating the claim that treatment of substance abuse in pregnant women has fallen two-thirds in the last several years, and why it's dropping. Trying to get answers, he requested the ability to inspect some public records like policy manuals, internal guidelines and information on funding sources for a few programs. The agency responded back saying it would take staff time billed to him at $19 per hour to compile what Lovgren wanted to view. Based on information he's been told, Lovgren says he estimated the final cost would be around $1300. He tried to reach out to the Nevada Attorney General for a second opinion. The Attorney General respond with a letter reading, “regrettably, this office cannot personally assist you with your complaint of violation of Nevada public record statute… you may wish to contact your attorney."
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office tells News 4 that although they can enforce the open meetings act, current law does not give their office power to help out with Nevada's public records act. In Nevada the only official way to appeal a public records decision is to take the case to court.
Diana Lopez with the pro-government transparency website SunshineReview.org is one of the nation's leading experts on public records law. She says going straight to court means a lot of wasted taxpayer dollars. Governments use taxpayers money to fund their side of public records suits. The citizen also is paying for his or her side.
Lopez says other states have a better system than Nevada. Her research shows 22 Attorney’s General across the United States can weigh in on public record disputes. Connecticut, New York and Hawaii all have special review boards looking at public records disputes. Washington State also offers a mediation program. Lopez says in Nevada right now, the best thing to do is call the head of the agency you have a problem with, explain to them why you want the records, and ask reconsider. “Common sense and common courtesy is a tool we all have at our disposal,” Lopez told News 4.
Lovgren said that didn't work in his case. He tells News 4, “[Nevada’s law is practical] for people who have lots of money and attorneys, but unfortunately there is this famous 99 percent of us who don't have those two things.”
Lovgren says he’s considering representing himself in court to save money. If you take a case to court in Nevada and win, you can be reimbursed the attorney's fees. Lovgren fears that he'll spend money filing a claim only to have the agency then turn over the document without a court order. That would mean he might be out everything he spent on the case up to that point.
News 4 also contacted the Department of Health and Human Services, they stand behind what they told Lovgren. HHS says their decision was based on a set public records policy built on Nevada law. The bottom line is that no matter if Lovgren has a case or not, there is no second review option