Nevada’s open meeting law has been widely flouted and largely ignored by numerous public agencies across the state who find it inconvenient and unseemly to conduct the public’s business in public, and the attorneys general over the years have been loath to mete out anything stronger than a mild rebuke and a gentle reminder to obey the law in the future.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
But the actions of the Washoe County School Board two weeks ago mark a new nadir in officials trammeling the open meeting law.
Six of seven members of the board met in a secret session without deigning to give a moment’s notice of the purpose of their deliberations, much less the legally required 72 hours. Nor was there any hint as to what was to be discussed, though the law clearly demands the posting of a detailed agenda of all potential deliberations and actions.
What emerged from under the rock — or from behind closed doors — was an ultimatum to School Superintendent Pedro Martinez that he resign or be fired.
The bone of contention, though it hardly matters, is that Martinez padded his resume by claiming to be a certified public accountant. For his part, Martinez says he passed the CPA exam but never claimed to be a licensed, practicing CPA.
Atop the lack of public scrutiny afforded their constituents, the school board members ignored the section of the open meeting law that prohibits them from holding a closed meeting “to consider the character, alleged misconduct or professional competence” of an appointed public officer, such as “a superintendent of a county school district.”
Additionally, the law dictates that no actual deliberations or action or vote may occur behind closed doors.
There was no public vote to fire Martinez or place him on administrative paid leave, whichever story the school board is sticking to at the moment.
A Reno Gazette-Journal editorial called the board members’ claim that no vote was taken unbelievable. “Six members of the board … took part in a news conference Tuesday evening; none protested President Barbara Clark’s announcement that Martinez had been let go. It simply strains credibility that a decision as momentous as the firing of the top official in the school district was made without the full participation — and, yes, vote — of every member of the board of trustees,” the newspaper editorialists correctly deduced.
The first words of the open meeting law clearly state: “In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that all public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”
The question is not whether the superintendent should be fired or not, but whether the board members’ constituents have adequate access to their deliberations and actions to be able to evaluate whether their representatives performed at their behest and in their best interests.
The law says, “Each member of a public body who attends a meeting of that public body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter, with knowledge of the fact that the meeting is in violation thereof, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
The attorney general has narrowly defined the “knowledge of the fact that the meeting is in violation” by letting them escape if their deeds complied with “advice of counsel.”
The board’s attorney was reportedly present during the secret and illegal meeting, and acquiesced in the shredding of the open meeting law, board members now claim.
Frankly, the violations of the Washoe County School Board are so numerous, so blatant, so obviously outside the broadest and most generous interpretation of the law that the attorney general should for once set a stern example, no matter what the board attorney might have said or advised.
The attorney general must stop treating such flagrant defiance of the law with a wink and a nod.
Each of the six board members should be subject to maximum fines and, as the law dictates upon conviction, removed from office. That would set an example for others to follow. — TM