Newspaper column: Nevada press shield law protects bloggers

Unlike too many jobs in this country there is no such thing as a licensed journalist, but a Carson City judge has found such in the penumbra of Nevada’s press shield law.

Normally those in the press don’t seek any privilege not accorded any other citizen, but by the very nature of the job — showing up at fires and car crashes, attending public meetings, poking into nooks and crannies of government and society, asking questions and quoting people — there needed to be a means to keep the press independent and not be dragged into court hearings or depositions every other week.

That’s the purpose behind the state press shield law. It prohibits giving the third-degree to the Fourth Estate. Otherwise, there would be considerable disincentive for people to talk to reporters, because reporters could be forced to testify about them or reveal their identities.

Sam Toll

The law says, “No reporter, former reporter or editorial employee of any newspaper, periodical or press association or employee of any radio or television station may be required to disclose any published or unpublished information obtained or prepared by such person in such person’s professional capacity in gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public, or the source of any information procured or obtained by such person, in any legal proceeding …”

The devil apparently is in the details.

Earlier this month District Court Judge James Wilson Jr. ordered Sam Toll, creator of The Storey Teller blog, to disclose his sources for a story about Storey County Commissioner and brothel owner Lance Gilman, who is suing Toll for defamation. Toll reported that sources told him the commissioner does not actually live in his district.

Toll wrote in a recent op-ed for the Las Vegas newspaper, “Gilman, one of the wealthiest men in Northern Nevada, insists he lives in a double-wide trailer behind the swimming pool at the Mustang Ranch brothel rather than the home he owns in Washoe Valley. Evidence and interviews I conducted suggest otherwise. In order to be a Storey County commissioner, you must reside in the district you represent.”

The judge concluded Toll is a reporter, but he failed to “provide facts, legal authority, or argument that the Storey Teller is a periodical …” Hair splitting. The law says periodical, which is a journal appearing periodically.

Instead of a press, a blogger uses a computer. It can be argued that Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” was America’s first blog — self-written, self-printed, self-promoted. Print on paper or print in the ether. It is a distinction without a difference.

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press was extended to radio and television without hesitation.

The judge further concluded Toll is not a reporter for a newspaper and did not join the Nevada Press Association until August 2017 and thus must reveal sources obtained prior to then.

Toll is not a reporter of or for the Press Association. He is a member. It is not a licensing body.

The state Supreme Court has recognized the shield law’s important function for the citizenry.

Justice Myron Leavitt opined in a case in 2000 in which a plaintiff tried to force a Las Vegas newspaper reporter to reveal his sources: “Nevada’s news shield statute serves an important public interest and provides absolute protection against compelled disclosure to ensure that through the press, the public is able to make informed political, social and economic decisions.”

Clark County judges have twice interpreted the shield law differently. In 2014 two judges ruled that the Mesquite Citizen Journal and its reporter, “although an online only news media source,” were protected by the shield law from being forced to reveal communications and records related to a series of stories about the local water district. In 2016 a judge denied demands to review a film maker’s unpublished notes and video interviews with a witness in a criminal case, ruling the press privilege also extended to the film maker.

Despite those rulings, Judge Wilson granted Gilman’s motion to compel Toll to reveal sources of information prior to August 2017 and gave the parties until April 12 for discovery to be completed.

For his part, Toll has said he is willing to be jailed before he will reveal sources. “Integrity is the most precious currency we have as journalists. Without it, the public would not entrust us with the information we need to help protect society from wrongdoers,” Toll wrote.

Let’s hope this current case is appealed and results in a similar outcome to that of the Mesquite Citizen Journal and the film maker.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Senate bill would make those who wrongly deny public records requests pay for the effrontery

It is time to put some teeth into Nevada’s public records law.

Government agencies have been flouting the law for years, refusing to turn over anything that might prove embarrassing to the agency or its bosses. The police refuse to release records. The school districts conduct investigations and refuse to release the results. One coroner refuses to release autopsies. The public employee pension system refuses to release the names and pensions of pensioners. Etc., etc., et forever cetera. They hire lawyers and use taxpayer money to fight and pay the costs of requesters when they lose, then shrug it off and do it all over again.

Now comes Senate Bill 287. It would put some skin in the game for the agencies and the people who wrongly deny public records requests.

Should SB287 become law, if a court determines a governmental entity or the person making the decision on behalf of the governmental entity wrongly denies a records request, the requester may be awarded a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 or more than $250,000 per offense from the agency or the responsible party or both.

That part about making the responsible party pay up should grease a few skids. Perhaps it also should specify that the agency may not reimburse the responsible party for the civil penalty.

A newly formed group called Right to Know Nevada sent out a press release via email on Friday supporting SB287.

Maggie McLetchie, an attorney who has represented the Las Vegas newspaper in a number of records lawsuits, was quoted as saying, “By ensuring that existing law is actually followed, Senator (David) Parks’ bill would reduce the need for expensive public records litigation, which is a good thing. The goal is to eliminate the need for costly lawsuits and to simply have the government be fully transparent and accountable to the people it serves, which is what state law already requires.”

ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said, “While existing law already requires a response within 5 business days, we have experienced vastly different response times, not too mention fees, from governments across the state in response to the identical request. In fact, some agencies simply never responded to our request at all.”

 

 

Newspaper column: Do not shroud public employee pensions in secrecy

Some lawmakers in Carson City are pushing a bill that basically declares that it is none of your business how your tax money is spent. Senate Bill 224 would make the names of recipients of pensions through the Public Employees’ Retirement System secret.

The first glimpse at the kinds of duplicity this bill invites is the fact that two of the three chief sponsors of the bill — state Sens. David Parks and Joyce Woodhouse — are currently drawing six-figure pensions from PERS, a fact that would not be known if this bill were already in law.

At a recent hearing on the bill, the third sponsor, state Sen. Julia Ratti, argued that PERS benefits are set aside for the public employees’ future use and asked, “At what point is public servant no longer a public person?”

The answer is: When that person no longer obliges the public to guarantee that pension. Right now the taxpayers are on the hook for $40 billion in unfunded liabilities, when standard accounting practices are used to make the calculation. Never mind that the taxpayers paid half of the pension contributions for that government worker retiree and all of the rather princely salary that public employee used for their half of the contribution.

Perhaps the most egregious argument made in the hearing is that the bill would cut the cost of litigation. It was PERS itself that created that cost by trying to skirt court rulings that stated the names of public pensioners and their pension amounts are public records under the Nevada public records law, which states that its purpose is to foster democratic principles by providing taxpayers with access to public records.

After the state Supreme Court ruled the records were public, PERS changed the way it kept the records, prompting Chief Justice Michael Douglas to suggest PERS had “gone out of its way to violate the spirit of the law.”

The bill’s backers are still arguing that revealing the names of pensioners might expose them to identity theft and fraud. The state Supreme Court dismissed that claim in its 2013 ruling by saying, “Because PERS failed to present evidence to support its position that disclosure of the requested information would actually cause harm to retired employees or even increase the risk of harm, the record indicates that their concerns were merely hypothetical and speculative. Therefore, because the government’s interests in nondisclosure in this instance do not clearly outweigh the public’s presumed right to access, we conclude that the district court did not err in balancing the interests involved in favor of disclosure.”

During a hearing on SB224, Robert Fellner, policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, countered that the publication of public pension information has enabled the public to correct abuses of such systems. A tip to California’s fraud hotline resulted in the system recovering more than $200,000, Fellner noted, causing CalPERS to release a statement praising “the great value of the public’s assistance in CalPERS’ efforts to protect the state pension system from fraud, waste, and abuse.”

In another example, Fellner noted that the importance of disclosing names was highlighted when a Los Angeles television station discovered that a police officer who was drawing a disability pension from one city was working full-time as a police officer for another agency.

“This type of abuse will be impossible to detect if SB224 becomes law and makes secret the names of those drawing tax-funded public pensions,” he testified, adding that 20 states maintain online public pension databases.

The law that set up PERS states: “It is the policy of this State to provide, through the Public Employees’ Retirement System: A reasonable base income to qualified employees who have been employed by a public employer and whose earning capacity has been removed or has been substantially reduced by age or disability.”

Yet in a previous court case NPRI’s attorney Joseph Becker observed that there are retirees in their 40’s collecting six-figure disbursements from PERS, while still earning income from other sources. “Only through the publication of name, pension payout and related data can the public better understand how the system works and the legislative purpose be effectuated,” he wrote.

Lawmakers should reject SB224’s effort to blinder the public. If not, Gov. Steve Sisolak — who once told a newspaper columnist, this one, that public employee contracting should be transparent and that the public employee pension system was overdue for reform — should veto it.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

It is time to cast off our chains and free ourselves from slavery to the clock.

On Sunday morning we are required to spring our clocks forward an hour, if we wish to remain in synch with the rest of the nation, get to church and work on time and tune in at the proper time to our favorite radio and TV programs.

Mankind once worked from can till cain’t, as my ol’ grandpappy used to say — from the time you can see till the time you can’t — and farmers and ranchers such as grandpappy still do. But to make the trains run on time, we strapped ourselves to the clock, even though the clock is uniform and doesn’t change when the amount of daylight does.

Ol’ Ben Franklin, while serving as ambassador in France, accidentally figured out that this out-of-synch arrangement was somewhat uneconomical when he mistakenly arose one day at 6 a.m. instead of noon and discovered the sun was shining through his window. “I love economy exceedingly,” he jested, and proceeded to explain in a letter to a local newspaper how many candles and how much lamp oil could be saved by adjusting the city’s lifestyle to the proclivities of the sun.

Franklin observed:

“This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations, which I shall give you, after observing that utility is, in my opinion the test of value in matters of invention, and that a discovery which can be applied to no use, or is not good for something, is good for nothing.”

Then he did the math, and exclaimed, “An immense sum! that the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles.”

Thus, in 1918 in a effort to be more economical during the war, Congress borrowed from Europe the concept of daylight saving time — springing clocks forward during the summer and back in the winter. From shortly after Pearl Harbor until the end of the Second World War, the nation was on year-round daylight saving time, or war time, as it was called.

National Geographic photo

Moving the clock forward in summer might well save a few kilowatt-hours in lighting, but in states like Nevada that savings is more than made up for with increased air conditioning costs and the fuel used to drive about more after getting off work.

One study found that springing forward causes enough sleep deprivation to cost the U.S. economy $435 million a year. The New England Journal of Medicine found an association between that one hour loss of sleep from daylight saving time and an increase in car accidents, as well as a 5 percent increase in heart attacks in the first three weekdays after the transition to daylight saving time, while an Australian study found an increase in the suicide rate.

In a probably futile gesture to end the charade, the state Legislature a couple of years ago passed Assembly Joint Resolution No. 4 that proposes to make Pacific Daylight Saving Time year-round.

“WHEREAS, Congress also found and declared that ‘the use of year-round daylight saving time could have other beneficial effects on the public interest, including the reduction of crime, improved traffic safety, more daylight outdoor playtime for children and youth of our Nation, [and] greater utilization of parks and recreation areas …’” AJR4 reads in part, also noting possible “expanded economic opportunity through extension of daylight hours to peak shopping hour. ”

It passed both the Assembly and Senate and was enrolled by the Secretary of State.

Changing to year-round daylight saving time might not save electricity, but it could increase productivity and prevent car wrecks.

Alas, as with everything else, the power to fix this lies in Washington, though I can’t seem to find this enumerated power in my copy of the Constitution. Perhaps it is outdated.

In another glaring example of the efficiency and sincerity of our elected officials, AJR4 passed, the morning newspaper reported that no one in Washington had ever heard of AJR4.

AJR4 concludes by beseeching Congress to amend The Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973 and allow each state to opt out, the same as Arizona and Hawaii have opted out, but rather than sticking with standard time, AJR4 would adopt Pacific Daylight Savings Time all year. Why should it get dark at 4:30 p.m. in the winter anyway?

Get used to it. Washington is in another century, much less a different time zone.

Versions of this tome have been posted since 2015.

Editorial: No need for murky water law changes

Two bills proposing to alter water use policy are pending in the Nevada Legislature. They are at best problematic.

Assembly Bill 30 appears to give the state engineer greater leeway in the use of monitoring, management and mitigations — known in the jargon as 3M — to resolve conflicts in water rights. The language is rather vague and subject to interpretation.

Assembly Bill 51 appears to give the state engineer more flexibility in what is called conjunctive management of water. While current law treats surface water and groundwater as interchangeable in a basin in the scheme of allocations, AB51 tells the state engineer to adopt regulations that mitigate conflicts between the two water sources.

Nevada water law is based on the concept of prior authorization, in other words the first one to use a water resource has priority or senior water rights. Those who come later, if there is enough water available, have junior rights that must yield to the senior rights if supply becomes inadequate for any reason.

The Great Basin Water Network, an organization that has been fighting attempts for years by the Las Vegas Valley water provider to tap groundwater in eastern Nevada basins, suspects these two bills are intended to give the state engineer the flexibility needed to allow the project to reach fruition.

GBWN says the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s $15 billion groundwater importation plan would pump 58 billion gallons of groundwater annually in a 300-mile pipeline to Las Vegas. They say the Bureau of Land Management has estimated the project would irreparably harm 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands, and 191,000 acres of shrub land habitat.

A federal judge has so far blocked the water grab from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys, saying the state engineer failed to establish any objective criteria for when mitigation — such as halting pumping — would have to be initiated. The engineer plans to appeal that ruling, but a change in state law could moot that.

GBWN questions the effectiveness of the two bills’ calls for monetary compensation and water replacement to make whole senior water rights owners.

Abby Johnson, GBWN’s president, says in an op-ed she has penned for area newspapers, “From ranchers to environmentalists, there is a consensus that we don’t need to fix what isn’t broken. Nevada water law has served Nevadans well for more than 100 years and continues to serve the public interest. That success, however, has stymied a select few.”

The select few, Johnson says, include real estate developers and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which has “not had much luck in recent years getting what they want under the current legal and regulatory framework. Why? Because what they want is to facilitate unsustainable over-pumping of the state’s fragile, limited groundwater resources.”

She adds, “ The problem –– for all of us –– is that they want water that either doesn’t exist or already belongs to someone else.”

Johnson further charges that the change in law would grant the state engineer “czar-like powers to unilaterally choose winners and losers without regard to senior water rights holders’ existing property rights … which would mire Nevada water rights owners and the state government in complex and unpredictable litigation for years.”

Assemblyman John Ellison of Elko released a statement saying the bills would constitute an unconstitutional “taking” of water rights and said a recent hearing saw a consensus of opposition from industry, ranchers and farmers and not one person testifying in support of either bill.

“We cannot allow an unelected bureaucrat to wield this much power over one of our state’s most precious resources. I’m reminded of the famous Mark Twain quote, ‘Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.’” Ellison said. “I will never stop fighting for the rights of senior property rights owners in my district and throughout Nevada.”

Though Twain probably never said that, it sounds like something he would say and is apropos to the current situation. AB 30 and AB51 need to be sent down the drain.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

 

Newspaper column: Assisted suicide bill creates perverse incentives

Sometimes good intentions can create more problems than they solve. Take Senate Bill 165 for example.

Nevada lawmakers held hearings recently on this bill that would legalize and tightly regulate physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The bill would allow competent adults diagnosed to be within six months of death, as diagnosed by two physicians, to be prescribed medication that the patient could self-administer to “peacefully end his or her life.”

The problem is that the 28-page bill goes far beyond that simple, seemingly liberating and decriminalizing notion by opening up the potential for widespread abuses and unintended consequences.

Dr. Brian Callister testifies

First of all, the bill requires doctors to falsify official records. “The medical certificate of death of a patient who dies after self-administering a controlled substance that is designed to end the life of the patient … must be signed by the attending physician who shall specify the terminal condition with which the patient was diagnosed as the cause of death of the patient,” SB165 reads.

Further, the bill turns suicide into an acceptable medical treatment on par with protracted and expensive treatment intended to prolong life. This provides health insurers with a perverse incentive to cover the cost of suicide but not the medical care that prolongs life.

Dr. Brian Callister, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, testified at a recent hearing on the bill that he once called two health insurance companies on behalf of two patients seeking lifesaving treatment in California and Oregon, both of which have assisted suicide laws. He said he was told procedures or transfers would not be covered, but he was asked if he had talked to the patients about assisted suicide, which was covered. He also told lawmakers that 50 to 70 percent of death prognoses are in error.

Others testified about family members who lived comfortably for years after being told they had six months to live.

Dr. Callister told a newspaper in 2017, “We have the physicians, the medicines, and the skills to keep people comfortable in palliative care and hospice. Assisted suicide changes the way we care for patients. It creates a dangerous segue to perverse incentives for insurance companies and there’s no going back from that.”

A group called the Patients Rights Council claims, “In California, after finding that her insurance company would not cover the chemotherapy her doctor had prescribed, a woman asked if assisted suicide was covered under her plan. She was told, ‘Yes, we do provide that to our patients, and you would only have to pay $1.20 for the medication.’”

Opponents of the bill also note that there is no requirement to have trained medical personnel present at the time the lethal drugs are being self-administered. They also note the request for the lethal drugs must be signed by two witnesses other than the doctor and one of them could be an heir, which creates a financial incentive to encourage a hastened death. There also is no requirement for psychiatric counseling.

Though the law makes it a felony to coerce someone into taking his or her own life, when does candid and honest discussion of the options cross the line into coercion? This raises a free speech issue.

Some of the drug cocktails prescribed can cause unintended pain and prolonged suffering. This is why the death penalty has been effectively put on hold in many states, including Nevada. It’s OK for the innocent but ill.

Opponents of the bill also note that a recent report on Oregon’s assisted suicide law states that avoiding pain and suffering is not the primary incentive for suicide. Fully 55 percent of those who used the state’s assisted suicide law cited a fear of being a burden to others.

The bill further restricts life insurance companies from writing fiduciarily sound contracts. Currently under Nevada law life insurance benefits can be denied only if someone commits suicide during the first two years of the insurance contract. SB165 dictates that a life insurer shall not deny a claim, cancel a policy or charge more solely because the insured has chosen assisted suicide. Nor may the company refuse to sell a policy to someone who has requested a prescription for life-ending drugs.

That, of course, means the rest of us will pay higher premiums.

This bill creates more problems than it solves.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: National Popular Vote bill would dilute Nevada voting power

Democratic lawmakers in Carson City are at it again, bound and determined to give your presidential ballots to the voters of California and New York.

Two years ago — after Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote by 304 to 227, though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million individual votes — a bill was introduced that would have had Nevada join in something called the “Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.”

Instead of awarding Nevada’s six electoral votes — one for each representative and senator in Congress — according to how Nevadans vote, those six electoral votes would be awarded to the president and vice president team that wins the popular vote nationally.

This essentially cuts the value of Nevada’s votes from six to four, since the votes nationwide would be proportional to population and exclude the power of our two senators, thus diluting our voting power.

Backers say the compact would become a reality if it is adopted by states possessing a combined 270 electoral votes, or a majority of the 538 electoral votes.

Fortunately, the bill went nowhere then.

But a group of Democratic lawmakers have dragged its carcass out of the slag heap and dumped it out as Assembly Bill 186. It is being discussed this week.

A similar bill was passed in Colorado this past week, giving the proposal 181 electoral votes, just 89 votes short of becoming binding.

The Founders established the nation on a federalist system, not a democracy. Certain enumerated powers were assigned to the federal government while the rest were reserved to the people and the sovereign states. The sovereignty of the states was so important that U.S. senators — until 1913’s 17th Amendment — were chosen by state Legislatures, not directly by the voters. That is also why the Electoral College was created to give added weight to smaller states.

Speaking of senators, one of the supporters of the National Popular Vote effort in 2017 was Nevada’s former senior Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.

“I believe that focusing on the Electoral College is important no matter how you do it, because what’s happened this decade, these last several elections, where we have clearly two elections, the Gore election and this election. In this election Hillary Clinton will wind up getting almost 3 million votes more than Trump. It’s time the system goes away. It is very undemocratic,” Reid said in an interview.

Pay no attention to the fact Reid served in the Senate for 30 years, where each state gets two votes no matter the size of its population. Most undemocratic.

A National Popular Vote bill did pass the Nevada Legislature back in 2009 on a strictly party line vote with 27 Democrats supporting it, all 14 Republicans opposing and one Democrat absent.

With Democrat majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly this year there is imminent danger that this constitutionally questionable usurpation of the power of Nevada voters could pass. We urge everyone to contact your lawmakers and express your ardent opposition to this atrocity.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.