Nebraska Legislature exempts itself from open records law
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By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Nebraska’s one-house Legislature was created with the promise of greater transparency in state government, but that promise falls short when it comes to some of the records lawmakers keep.
Legislators have exempted themselves from the state’s public records law, allowing them to withhold “correspondence, memoranda and records of telephone calls’’ that other state agencies and local governments must disclose. Such documents give the public insight into who is trying to influence elected officials on important policy decisions.
To test Nebraska’s public-records law, The Associated Press asked for emails and daily schedules from three leading state senators and Gov. Pete Ricketts during the week of Feb. 1-7. The request was made for Sunshine Week, a national initiative beginning Sunday to promote government transparency and freedom of information. Similar inquiries to legislative leaders in all 50 states were met with more denials than approvals.
In Nebraska, legislative leaders rejected requests for emails from their state accounts but agreed to release detailed daily schedules.
For Ricketts, the answer was the opposite: The governor turned over nearly 600 pages of emails and his “public schedule’’ – a list of appearances the media are invited to attend – but his staff declined to make public a more detailed daily calendar that lists closed-door meetings. Most of the governor’s emails consisted of correspondence from constituents and Twitter notifications.
Lawmakers cited several reasons for withholding their emails.
Sen. Mike Gloor, chairman of the Revenue Committee, said he had already deleted many of the messages and his staff was too busy to retrieve them. Gloor said he might be able to release some emails if the request was more specific, but he also wanted to protect personal and sensitive information sent by constituents.
“Breaking their confidence is a serious problem,’’ said Gloor, of Grand Island.
Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley, who leaves office in January, said he didn’t want to set a new precedent for future legislators.
Withholding the emails is “consistent with normal practice of other legislative members who have received similar requests,’’ Hadley, of Kearney, wrote in his denial letter.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he wouldn’t release his emails because constituents who contact him may not want their names and emails used publicly.
A government watchdog group said the public should have access to the records so voters know who is trying to influence elected officials.
“If you’re working on a public computer, in a public office, then your records should be public,’’ said Jack Gould, issues chairman of the group Common Cause Nebraska.
Gould said he understands that some citizens may want to keep conversations private, but he argued that such cases are rare and easily avoided. The governor’s website, for instance, includes a warning that all emails to the office are considered public records.
Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor’s staff “is careful to redact personal, sensitive information from public records’’ when state law allows.
Lawmakers approved the public records exemption in 1983 after a candidate for Legislature requested the phone records of an incumbent he was trying to unseat. The attorney general issued an opinion that the records were public, but noted that some could be exempt if they were connected to a lawmaker’s efforts to investigate a public policy matter.
Senators at the time argued that the exemption would ensure that constituents could speak freely to them about sensitive matters, such as a nursing home employee who witnesses abuse but doesn’t want to lose his job.
During the 1983 committee hearing on the bill, one senator said he simply didn’t want to disclose who had called his office.
“Quite frankly, I think it’s none of your damn business,’’ then-Sen. Tom Vickers told a lobbyist for Nebraska media outlets.
Nebraska’s one-house Legislature was designed with transparency in mind. George Norris, the U.S. senator and statesman who promoted the system, argued that a smaller unicameral would be more open to public scrutiny and thus less corrupt.
Norris contended that the unicameral would eliminate the need for conference committees, where senators shape legislation behind closed doors. Reporters are also allowed to attend executive sessions, where committees discuss and vote on legislation, even though those meetings are closed to the public.
Daily schedules released by Hadley, Gloor and Mello included meetings with lobbyists and other elected officials.
Hadley’s schedule for the week showed an evening reception with local chambers of commerce, a legislative breakfast with farm groups and a half-hour meeting with Ricketts.
Mello’s calendar included a speech to the Lincoln Federation of Business, a downtown luncheon with the AFL-CIO and a meeting with Nebraska Department of Roads Director Kyle Schneweis.
Gloor’s schedule listed meetings with fellow senators and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman, as well as a speech to the Nebraska Association of School Boards. Gloor said he asked his staff to delete personal appointments, such as haircuts and doctor’s visits.