Published Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Updated Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011 | 9:30 a.m.
Elected officials usually try to pretend that they are holding frank public discussions. But the Legislature and its interim committees have given up on any such pretense, noting that they are exempt from the state’s open meeting laws.
With Senate Republicans jockeying over who will be their next leader, a rare moment of candid argument occurred Wednesday during a meeting of the Legislative Commission. The committee then recessed to arm wrestle in private over appointments.
City councils, county commissions and other Nevada boards are required to follow open meeting laws, which require all discussions — except about personnel evaluations and litigation — to occur in public.
The point, of course, is that the public’s business should be conducted in public.
“It’s all about the details. It’s all about knowing who said what to whom,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association. “If this is important enough business that it needs to be conducted by the Legislative Commission, then it needs to be conducted by the public and in the open.”
But the state law, written by the Legislature, exempts the Legislature.
That exemption, according to the lawmakers’ attorneys, also applies to interim committees such as the Legislative Commission.
Under that interpretation of the law, the Interim Finance Committee, which allocates millions of dollars, and the Legislative Commission, which approves regulations, are not required to post agendas or even let the public know when they’re meeting.
Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said this has long been the interpretation of the legislative branch, but it has not wanted to test it in court.
"We make every effort to comply with the open meeting law when not in session," he said. "This is not a new interpretation. This has been the opinion, that the open meeting law does not apply in the interim. But we don't want to try to test that opinion."
An issue arose Wednesday that would have been ripe for some healthy public debate.
Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, and Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, have both expressed interest in being the next majority leader of the caucus. Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, on Wednesday nominated Cegavske for an appointment to a committee that will find a new director for the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which staffs the Legislature. Roberson countered with a nomination of Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, called a recess and caucus members moved beyond the view of the camera. The meeting was being broadcast to Carson City.
When they came back, roughly 10 minutes later, they nominated Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, who is term limited. It was adopted by the full Legislative Commission.
Roberson downplayed the disagreement over the appointment, blaming it on a “miscommunication.” It was, he said, his first time through the process.
Settelmeyer, he said, never consulted him, Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, R-Las Vegas, or the other Senate Republican on the Legislative Committee.
“This is not an earth-shattering deal,” he said.
As for conducting his discussion with Settelmeyer in public, he said he would have been willing. “I would not have shied away from that. It was Sen. Horsford who said, ‘You need to go and work this out.’ If need be, I’d be happy to have this conversation in a public forum,” he said.
He noted that on an issue like this, it could turn into “a circus. I know it’s great for the press, but I’m not sure how productive it is.”
Democrats privately relished that small bit of public Republican infighting. But both the Assembly and Senate Democratic caucuses are without a clear leader: Horsford is expected to run for Congress; Speaker John Oceguera is term limited. The jockeying in the Assembly is particularly fierce between Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas and Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, among others.
Smith said, “We always have conversations beforehand. I think you can tell it went very smoothly, on our side.”
At least in public.