By: M.L. Stein
Can’t use fax machines and phone lines to avoid press coverage of Nev. public meetings
A university system’s attempt to make board decisions via fax machines and telephones was cut down by the state Supreme Court with an assist by the Nevada Press Association.
In a suit against the Board of Regents of the University and Community College System by the state attorney general, the court, by a 3-1 margin, ruled that conducting official business by electronic means violated the state’s open meeting act.
The NPA filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the attorney general, who had appealed a decision by District Judge Janet Berry in favor of the regents. Berry declared the regents had not breached the law because no actual meeting took place when they were polled by fax on a draft statement relating to criticism of her fellow board members by regent Nancy Price.
‘Media advisory’ discussed
James Eardley, then board chairman, faxed board members, with the exception of Price, for their reaction to a draft ‘media advisory’ protesting Price’s remarks. According to court documents, the regents responded by phone calls charged to the university system. But, after receiving their comments, Eardley decided not to release the statement.
Writing for the Supreme Court majority, Justice William Maupin held that the regents were taking action as a public body, noting that their responses were made with university-paid calling cards. He also pointed out that the draft expressed the regents’ concern that Price’s criticisms were “damaging to the board and the university system as a whole.”
Use of electronic means barred
Added Maupin: “Because the board utilized university resources, because the advisory was drafted as an attempted statement of university policy and because the board took action on the draft, we hold that the board acted in its official capacity as a public body.” The majority ruling further pointed out that open meeting law requires written notice of public meetings and bars the use of electronic devices to evade the spirit or the letter of the statute.
In dissenting opinion, Justice Charles Springer absolved the board of defying the law, adding: “It is a matter of deep concern to me that not only has the court declared that 10 public officials have ‘violated the open meeting law,’ it has set a precedent that threatens to terrorize public board members in the future in a way that will chill legitimate private communications among members of public boards.”
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 16, 1998) [Caption]