The late presidential candidate H. Ross Perot famously referred to that “giant sucking sound” while critiquing a proposed trade agreement. Listen closely and you can hear a similar reverberation emanating from the Clark County Government Center. This time, it’s the sound of taxpayer money circling the commode.
On Tuesday, District Court Judge David Jones ordered the county to pay the Review-Journal $167,000 in legal fees that the newspaper accrued fighting the coroner’s office over access to public documents. Despite the clear wording of the state’s open record statutes, the coroner refused to provide autopsy reports that the RJ has sought for years as part of an investigation into the child welfare system.
At every turn, the coroner’s office — with the County Commission’s approval — obstructed, obfuscated and delayed despite repeatedly losing in court. All told, the county spent nearly $80,000 in taxpayer money to pay lawyers to argue that those very same taxpayers had no right to view the records of a public agency. Throw in Judge Jones’ order, and local residents are now out almost a quarter of a million dollars thanks to this futile effort.
“Clark County owes taxpayers an apology,” RJ Executive Editor Glenn Cook said. “The county willfully violated the law and embarked on years of legally baseless appeals … Transparency is the law.”
That’s true, but it will be a cold day down below when county officials apologize. If this fiasco highlights anything, it’s how the concept of accountability remains anathema to many public officials regardless of laws in place to promote it. And when there are no personal financial consequences for defying those laws — when you’re playing with other people’s money — there’s even less incentive to follow statutes and court orders.
Transparency did indeed prevail — and that’s a hopeful sign. Public scrutiny of government activities is a cornerstone of a healthy and functional democracy. In this case, the autopsy reports could play a vital role in determining whether the child welfare system is operating in the best interests of those it is supposed to protect.
Congratulations to Judge Jones for refusing to tolerate the county’s intransigence. Perhaps his order will be a deterrent to other state and local agencies that seek to keep the public’s business secret from those they serve. Of course, if history is any indication, even this six-figure “fine” won’t discourage those who are intent on ignoring state transparency statutes, but we dare to dream.