By SAM METZ AP/Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Officials in a rural Nevada county with significant mining assets want state lawmakers to carve out an exemption in the state’s Open Meeting Law to allow them to discuss environmental assessments before the reports are released to the public.
Members of the Legislature’s Public Lands Committee voted 7-1 on Tuesday to draft a bill that would provide the exemption, which could affect massive mining projects under environmental review.
The bill would allow local officials to hold closed meetings with federal agencies during the “pre-decisional” phase of projects undergoing environmental impact reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Eureka County Natural Resource Manager Jake Tibbitts said the proposal would give local governments representing their constituents’ interests more power to participate in the review process. Environmentalists and open government advocates found the argument questionable.
Federal law allows agencies to deliberate over draft documents away from the public eye to facilitate frank discussions before they’re released. Agencies like the Bureau of Land Management that oversee public land in Eureka County require local governments to sign non-disclosure agreements if they want to participate in drafting environmental reviews.
The non-disclosure agreements conflict with Nevada’s Open Meeting Law, Tibbitts said. The law requires state and local government bodies to allow the public to observe most government decision-making and to post notices of meetings at least three days in advance.
However, the non-disclosure agreements prevent local governments from holding public meetings while assessments are being drafted. By doing so, Tibbitts said, they limit local officials’ ability to relay the concerns of constituents and be get them involved in a key decision-making phase of the reviews.
An exemption would “allow local officials the flexibility to do the job they were elected to do, which is represent local interests,” Tibbitts said.
“Once the documents are drafted, it’s hard to affect any real change,” he added.
Open government advocates and environmentalists who often worry about the political power of the state’s mining industry testified against the proposal and said it would subvert the purpose of the Open Meeting Law, which is to ensure the public can participate in their government’s decision-making process.
Nevada Press Association Executive Director Richard Karpel said it was essential for the public to be able to observe and participate in the pre-decision phase of any government action.
“If this passes, it’s just going to be people from the federal government and people from Nevada governments discussing issues with the citizens of the state having no idea what they’re talking about,” he said.
Members of the Great Basin Resource Watch, a Nevada-based environmental nonprofit, have frequently fought the expansion of mining operations in rural Nevada. They’re currently opposing the Mount Hope Molybdenum Mine, which they allege will use excessive amounts of groundwater and damage the surrounding environment.
The organization’s Executive Director John Hadder said he was unconditionally supportive of transparency but also understood why Eureka County felt stuck between Nevada’s Open Meeting Law and federal non-disclosure agreements.
“Under the current law, they wouldn’t even have a meeting at all,” he said.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.