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STEVE SEBELIUS: Is anybody accountable for what local governments do?

Updated October 3, 2022 - 10:23 am

Who’s in charge here?

Is anybody accountable for what local governments do?

The Review-Journal’s Art Kane wrote last Sunday about Jeff Wells, a highly paid deputy county manager who oversees several county departments that have been beset with problems.

And at Las Vegas City Hall, officials destroyed the video of a physical altercation between two council members, even though the Review-Journal was seeking a copy.

Who’s running things downtown, anyway?

Kane tried to interview county commissioners about Wells, the guy formerly in charge of the public defender’s office during a harassment scandal. He still oversees the coroner’s office and the public administrator, where abuses have been well-documented. But commissioners left a public meeting without talking to him, and later wouldn’t return calls about the matter. Neither would the soon-to-retire county manager, Yolanda King.

Commissioners are elected by the people to oversee the county’s bureaucracy. They shouldn’t be ducking reporters’ calls. “No comment” and hiding behind official statements isn’t an option when you’re in public life.

Neither should elected officials use the old dodge of claiming something is a “personnel issue” and thus confidential. If wrongdoing is alleged to have occurred, the public has a right to know what happened, who’s responsible and what’s going to be done about it. Ultimately, it’s the commissioners who are responsible, and they owe the voters an explanation.

In the wake of the murder of Review-Journal investigative journalist Jeff German, allegedly at the hands of Public Administrator Robert Telles, there’s been some discussion about whether certain county offices should even be elected positions. If they were regular county departments, headed by staffers instead of elected officials, discipline for things such as harassment or neglect of duty would, in theory, be easier and quicker. But the Wells case seems to disprove that idea.

Over at Las Vegas City Hall, there’s another example of flagrant, unchecked abuse. After a physical altercation in January 2021 between Councilwomen Michele Fiore and Victoria Seaman, Jeff German made two public records requests to obtain copies of a video of the incident. But the city played games before eventually destroying the video.

First, the city said, German had requested the video of the wrong area of City Hall. Then, when German broadened his request to include every camera in the building, the city demanded more than $63,000 and five months to comply with the request, after which German dropped the matter. A third request from another reporter came after the video had already been deleted.

But the city attorney and his staff knew the entire time exactly what video German was seeking, because they pulled the tape after Seaman complained about Fiore. City Attorney Bryan Scott and several members of his staff watched it, as did others at City Hall, according to an investigative report released late last week.

Instead of complying with the request, the city played games until the video would be overwritten. The investigative report says that neither Seaman nor Fiore wanted copies released. “Councilwoman Fiore stated that both she and Councilwoman Seaman told Bryan Scott not to give the video to the Las Vegas Review-Journal,” the investigative report says.

But the decision about whether to release public records isn’t up to elected officials or the unelected city attorney. They all have an obligation to comply with the public records law, and even to help requesters find the information they’re looking for. In this case, Scott and his deputies did exactly the opposite. He may try to stand on technicalities, but the bottom line is he allowed a public record — and evidence of a potential crime — to be destroyed, even though he knew exactly what reporters were after.

Again, who’s in charge? Will no one on the City Council — which hires and fires the city attorney — demand accountability? Or is every public records request to be thwarted by the city’s pathetic legal shell games — ask for something too specific, and you’ll be told it doesn’t exist; ask too broadly and you’ll get a huge bill.

We elect public officials to safeguard the powers delegated by the people to their government. But too often, those officials become enmeshed in that government and forget their role is to provide oversight and accountability.

We’ve got an election coming up. The voters should demand officials who are going to insist on accountability from public employees, so they can at least answer the question: Who’s in charge here?

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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