May 11, 2009

"I don’t know why you won’t just kind of let it be and trust what I’m saying."

What do you get when you mix an entrenched bureaucracy, stonewalling executive directors and consultants, a marker running out of ink, and a reporter trying to do her job? This comedy of errors:

The quest began in late January, when the newspaper asked the state agency for documents including the progress reports new nursing schools submit to the board every six months.

The Sun wanted to examine the reports because the newspaper had found that many graduates of new nursing schools in Nevada, a state with one of the country’s worst nursing shortages, were struggling to pass the licensing exam on the first try.

After forking over $122.40 for the documents (purportedly to cover staff time devoted to compiling and redacting the documents) some interesting things about the documents started to become apparent.

A review of the documents [Education Consultant Roseann] Colosimo initially provided yielded some odd discoveries. Some “redacted” information was still readable, having been crossed out using what appeared to be a thin-tipped pen and a marker running out of ink. That was just fine by us, of course. But other reports appeared incomplete, with entire sections and pages missing. Some reports, for instance, included sections outlining programs’ strengths and weaknesses while others, including some from 2008, did not. (Emphasis added.)

The reason given? According to the board's executive director Debra Scott, "prior to 2007, 'there was little uniformity in the information that was presented.'"

Scott said she withheld some information based on the alignment of the stars her decision.

But it didn't take long before Scott passed the buck and admitted she actually didn't know what had been released and what hadn't and said it was up to Colosimo to make that call.

And then, just when you thought it couldn't get any better, Scott uttered one of the best lines I've ever read during my course of writing for this blog:

"I gave you the information that is appropriate to the public. You have caused my staff hours of work, and this is something that just - I don’t know why you won’t just kind of let it be and trust what I’m saying."

Has a single sentence ever so eloquently captured the sentiment of way too many public officials?

Finally, the Sun turned to Barry Smith who fights for us transparency nuts as executive director of the Nevada Press Association. He says that unless directors can cite specific laws giving them the ability to withhold records, the records should be open.

After the Sun asked Scott what law allowed her to keep withholding information, the board's attorney curtly said the previously unreleased information would be in the mail.

So the Sun got the documents, Scott looked foolish, Colosimo got blamed, and the board's attorney got paid and probably more than $122.40.

But wait! It would be unfair to leave without examining some of the information that was previously withheld. Most of the information didn't contain private information about "faculty members, students or patients" (as was initially claimed). But it did include "juicy" details such as "[t]he majority of the existing faculty members are highly skilled and experienced, and exhibit a willingness to teach in a variety of courses." No wonder Scott wanted the information withheld.

And that marker running out of ink? It left visible the name of a faculty member fired for "unsafe practice in the clinical setting". Maybe the former faculty member can get a job working on record requests for the state nursing board. After all, they couldn't do much worse.