Editorial Opinion: The Dangerous Folly of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners|
December 6, 2010
At the December 3-4, 2010 meeting of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners the Gibbons Administration took another run at Nevada's wild horses. The way in which this matter was handled sparked concerns that the Commission was engaging in a potentially risky battle and produced formal allegations that the Commission violated Nevada's Open Meeting Law in the process. Neither the the Commission's actions or violations are surprising under this administration.
This controversy started at the Commission's "Feral Horse Committee." The Committee drafted two letters through processes that violated various provisions of Nevada's Open Meeting Law. (The allegations of violations are discussed following the content of the letters.) This document is Part Two of the editorial and discusses the second letter. The first letter is discussed in Part One
Draft Letter regarding the Pickens Monument.
The "Pickens Monument" involves a long term holding and sanctuary project for BLM horses created and funded by
Madeleine Pickens, wife of energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens. The project has been funded by Mrs. Pickens personally, however the land and improvements have all been turned over to a legal non-profit entity for ownership and management.
Local public lands cattle ranchers have opposed the plan, which is not surprising since they tend to oppose anything that doesn't involve Federal handouts that support their subsidized public lands grazing.
Viewed from a national perspective, these vocal ranchers are a contradiction. In one breath they demand that Mrs. Pickens fence her project in order to contain the horses there. At the same time they oppose fencing designed to contain the horses as it would also prevent their cattle from trespassing where they don't belong. (Nevada is a fence-out state.) Similarly the public lands ranchers complain about excess horses found on "their" grazing allotments, while at the same time they complain about proposals designed to contain horses on lands reserved for horses.
Sportsmen have expressed more rational concerns involving public access to the Federal lands that would comprise a large portion of this project. Under the multiple use doctrine, the public would generally have access to these lands even if the lands' primary uses changed to sustaining horses instead of cattle.
As presently proposed, the project is to be an ecosanctuary where the range could be studied by interested parties, including formal youth and collegiate programs. (Given our culture's headlong rush into "high tech," we applaud any project that will stimulate interest in range biology and wildlife ecology and that might motivate young people into pursuing education and careers in those fields.)
The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners' Feral Horse Committee drafted a letter citing opposition to Mrs. Pickens' project unless a number of questions were answered. This letter was redundant since an environmental assessment is required in order for the nearby public lands to become a part of this project and the issues raised in the letter, along with many more, would be fully explored in the assessment process.
In response to the letter presented by the Feral Horse Committee, the Commissioners acted by simply passing a resolution opposing Mrs. Pickens project. In reality such a resolution would have little if any legal impact on the project. However some sportsmen have expressed concerns that a confrontation between the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners and the parties advancing the plan that consist of Mrs. Pickens, key members of Congress and the Bureau of Land Management, could result in a change of land use that prevents seasonal licensed hunting on the lands involved in this project. If this were to become the case, Nevada's legitimate sportsmen could experience some adverse impacts to their interests and the real cause might not be Mrs. Pickens, but rather the way she and her camp are being treated.
Allegations of Open Meeting Law Violations.
Nevada's open meeting laws are succinct and are covered in
NRS Chapter 241. All public bodies in the state and their subordinate boards and committees, excepting the Legislature, are required to conduct their business in accordance with these laws.
Some basic principles include:
- No discussions, deliberations or actions may be taken by any of these bodies except during lawfully constituted public meetings. (A few specific exceptions allow for special circumstances, such as investigations into employee misconduct, where bodies can meet in properly noticed closed sessions.)
- All public meetings must be properly noticed with agendas posted in specific locations no later than 9:00 AM, three business days before the date of the meeting, not including the date of the meeting. (Exceptions are provided for meetings required to deal with disasters and emergencies.)
- Each agenda must include a clear and complete statement of the topics scheduled to be considered during the meeting.
- Each body is required to provide to any citizen so requesting a copy of the body's agenda, any proposed ordinance(s) or regulation(s) being considered by the body, and copies of "any other supporting material provided to the members of the public body," except for documents that are legally confidential.
In the case of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners' Feral Horse Committee, the Committee's agenda for the meeting where the water rights letter was deliberated and acted upon was defective.
View the Agenda.
Committee Agenda Item No. 4 states, "Development of a letter that will be sent to the State Engineer's office from the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners - Chairman Stremler - ACTION."
This agenda item discusses preparation of a letter (an instrument of communication) however nowhere does it discuss the subject of the letter - information required by law as it could be of interest to citizens viewing the agenda and be a basis for their deciding whether to attend the meeting or submit written comments.
Further driving this matter outside the law was the Feral Horse Committee's refusal to provide copies of supporting materials including the letter under consideration or even let citizens present photograph the letter.
As the letter was clearly deliberated and acted upon outside the law, it is the position of the Alliance that it was not a document that could legally be presented to the Commission or be acted on by the Commission.
The Alliance has not been able to establish the origin of the Pickens Monument letter presented to the Commission by the Feral Horse Committee. We could find no agenda listing that discussed this letter at all. The presumption is that the Feral Horse Committee unlawfully composed the letter outside the public meeting process, could not legally present the letter from the Committee to the Commission, and the Commission could not legally act on it.
Dayton, NV resident Dorothy Nylen filed a formal complaint with the Nevada Attorney General charging that the actions of the Feral Horse Committee as well as the subsequent actions by the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners involved multiple violations of Nevada's Open Meeting Law. Mrs. Nylen's allegations have been received and are presently being investigated.
View the complaint. (Large file, may take time to download.)
The apparent fly in the ointment comes with Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. In a series of cases, several of which have involved the direct experiences of members of this Alliance, Attorney General Masto talks a good game but in fact administers an agency that routinely shields wrongdoers in State Government from the very laws and standards that the Legislature and citizens expect them to comply with. The most common strategies include rationalizing that blatant violations of state statutes are simply the results of "clerical errors," agreeing that violations have been made but taking so long to render a decision that the statutes of limitations have run out so the unlawful actions stand uncorrected, and claiming "Executive Privilege" over many state agency records that in some instances constituted the most basic forms of public documents.
These concerns were addressed earlier this year by the Nevada Policy Research Institute in a series of articles.
Apparently the complaints regarding the Attorney General's Office aren't limited to agencies hiding public records and public bodies ignoring Nevada's open meeting laws. Las Vegas TV station KTNV (Channel 13) aired a story earlier this year critical of the Attorney General's Office for allowing certain Las Vegas area business to allegedly fleece customers, including complaints about an unlicensed doctor who was allegedly blinding patients.
According to KTNV the Attorney General's office has brought only about 3% of the complaints received to court. Although we recognize that there can be many factors that influence that figure, 3% is an astonishingly low percentage. Obviously advocates don't hold out great hope that state entities such as the State Board of Wildlife Commissioners will be compelled to straighten up and follow the law. Our concerns are that nothing much is likely to change until the Attorney General puts forth a little less talk and a lot more action.
Note: This commentary reflects the views of the writers who are solely responsible for its content.