ELKO — The county commission violated Open Meeting Law in October while discussing alleged misconduct by a federal law enforcement officer, according the attorney general’s office.
In an opinion dated Feb. 21, Senior Deputy Attorney General George H. Taylor concluded that an item on the county commission’s Oct. 23 agenda failed to provide to the public information it intended to present at the meeting.
“We find a violation of the (Open Meeting Law)’s requirement that all agenda items provide ‘clear and complete’ notice of topics to be discussed,” the document states.
Lori Gilbert, KELK and KENV news director who first reported on the AG’s response, filed the complaint, in which she expressed frustration that the county’s agenda was not specific, as required by Nevada law.
The item in question centered around Bureau of Land Management law enforcement. The board, which was prepped with pre-written questions by fellow commissioner Grant Gerber, was set to discuss an inconvenience faced by residents who were ticketed on public land, because fighting a citation would require going to federal court in Reno. The agenda didn’t mention specific complaints, nor did it allege misconduct by a specific BLM ranger.
During the meeting, however, an Elko County resident, Brad Nelson, approached the board and said he was incorrectly ticketed a year prior for cutting wood in a Wilderness Study Area by Ranger Brad Sones. Nelson, who came prepared with evidence including a recording of a saved phone message, denied cutting wood in a wilderness study area. He said Sones tried to talk him out of fighting the ticket, and he said as a court date approached the ranger called him to tell him it had been continued and later the charges dropped. Nelson, it appears, was invited to approach the board by Gerber, who had agreed some time before to help Nelson — and two friends who were also cited — fight the tickets, pro bono.
BLM Elko District Manager Jill Silvey, one of many federal employees in attendance at the October meeting, argued before the commission she had planned to discuss solutions to the travel time, but was not prepared to discuss Nelson’s case.
Prior to the meeting, Silvey said she asked Gerber for specific information related to the agenda item. But the commissioner didn’t tell her about Nelson’s complaint, and she had no knowledge of it up to that point.
Taylor warned the commission to include on its agendas all topics it planned to address in cases that are of significant importance to the public, such as law enforcement issues. The commission never voted on the matter, so no action needed to be voided.
In the original complaint, Gilbert also argued that based on questions asked by county attorney and chief civil deputy district attorney Kristin McQueary, she seemed prepared to discuss Nelson’s allegations.
In her response, McQueary said she didn’t have prior knowledge of Nelson’s grievances. She also argued “the agenda was as ‘clear and complete’ as it could have been under the circumstances” that it’s impossible to anticipate everything that could arise during public discussion.
McQueary, who wrote that a broadly worded agenda item creates its own problems and suggested the AG’s office would have received similar complaints if the items were written too narrowly, commended the job County Manager Rob Stokes had done.
“Mr. Stokes does a tremendous job of distilling the agenda requests of various elected officials, department heads, and general public into manageable items,” she said.
Gerber did hand commissioners a list of questions he encouraged them to ask Nelson, according to information the county provided to the AG’s office, which included “How did the BLM agent act when you were cited?” and “Was the BLM agent intimidating?”
Each commissioner sent a letter to the AG’s office arguing against the complaint, except Commissioner Jeff Williams, who said the county didn’t violate the letter of the Open Meeting Law, but was “to a large degree” guilty of violated the intent of it.
Commissioner Charlie Myers said Gerber, as the newest member of the board, hadn’t learned that commissioners like to ask their own questions, and he threw away the set Gerber provided to him.
McQueary was not available Tuesday for comment. Stokes did not return a call by deadline.