As a journalist for nearly a half-century, I literally have filed hundreds of freedom of information act/public records requests to get documents from government agencies. In cases decades apart and quite separate, I got the secret testimonies to the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and later-to-be-fugitive-financier Robert Vesco.
I obtained proof of Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover’s jealousy about all the attention the 1960s TV show “The Untouchables” gave to rival lawman Eliot Ness, and how the agency monitored the personal life of secretly gay actor Rock Hudson. I showed the odd FBI surveillance of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe (whose name was misspelled in agency reports every single time), the poet John Ciardi and sports editor Lester Rodney of the Communist Party daily newspaper the Daily Worker. I even used disclosure laws to get dog-attack records from the U.S. Postal Service (along with an apology for illegally not providing them faster).
But no request I ever filed was quite as strange as the one I made recently after becoming New To Las Vegas. I was forced to draft and send a formal plea under the Nevada Public Records Act to get my own water records.
I am not making this up. Read on.
I had received a monthly home water bill from Las Vegas Valley Water District in April for $360.00. That was more than seven times higher than the $50.00 average of all my previous bills. The water district apparently thought that a household with two people who each get one shower a day, a dog that drinks a little water, a small amount of grass irrigated for a few minutes every other day and a pool that isn’t emptied and refilled blew through 76,000 gallons in a 28-day period, versus an average 12,900 gallons for all previous periods. Do the math, and that works out to nearly two gallons every single minute 24/7.
I had heard no persistent water flow other than an occasionally running toilet and saw no evidence of a leak like perpetually soggy ground or standing pools of water. So it was quite a puzzle.
Trying to figure it all out, I called the water district and eventually was called back by someone from something called the Escalation Desk. I think that’s a fancy name for Complaint Desk.
It was from the Escalation Desk person that I learned the meter reader gets an electronic read-out each month by passing his or her truck near my meter box buried in my front sidewalk, and that the read-out actually includes hourly water usage going back about 40 days. The desk person was able to tell me that almost all my high usage was recorded as happening in a single one-week period starting and ending around 9 a.m. on a Friday. She was even able to read me some hourly and daily usages.
Gee, I thought, that’s interesting. Workers dealing with the pool had been on the property at those exact times. The fact that the high usage eventually stopped might undercut the Escalation Desk person’s persistent suggestion that I somewhere had a leak, since leaks tend not to close on their own. I wanted to study this data more closely. So I asked that the records read to me be printed out and sent to me.
No can do, I was told.
How can that be, I asked? Isn’t the Las Vegas Valley Water District a government agency? Wouldn’t the records read to me on the phone be covered by public record laws? Again, I was told my records would not be released to me.
Now, allow me to brag a bit. I am one of the worst persons in the world to be told that public records can’t be released.
On the Internet I quickly found a copy of the Nevada Public Records Act, the Silver State equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act. The federal FOIA is pretty good, but state records laws vary widely in scope. Culturally, Nevada is a pretty secretive place–I guess that’s what a Mob heritage will do.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the Nevada public records law isn’t terrific. Among other problems, there by one count are more than 300 exemptions, categories of records the government doesn’t have to cough up on request. But I reviewed them all, along with the few Nevada court cases interpreting the law (having made it through law school, I have a high tolerance for such reading). Nothing I saw ruled out my getting my own records from the Las Vegas Valley Water District. There certainly was no question it was a government agency; hell, its board of directors consists of the seven elected Clark County commissioners.
I called the water district one more time to ask for my records and by a different person was again rebuffed. That confirmed it was a formal policy rather than a rogue or ill-trained employee. So on May 1 I sat down and composed on my personal letterhead a letter that I then sent via the old-fashioned United States Postal Service.
In case visitors to this blog encounter the same situation and need a handy form, here is what I sent, redacted only for my address and account number.
Las Vegas Valley Water District
1001 S. Valley View Blvd.
Las Vegas NV 89153
Attn. Custodian of Records/Records Official
To the District:
Pursuant to the Nevada Public Records Act, NRS § 239 et seq., I hereby request copies from your agency of the hourly water meter readings of account No. [number redacted], which concerns my property and main residence at [address redacted], from January 1, 2017, to the present. It is my understanding that such data is stored in your computer systems after it is read and downloaded electronically by a meter reader, and easily accessible to some agency employees, so it should be a simple matter to recover the data without extraordinary measures and send it to me. Please note that NRS § 239.005 6(b) specifically states that “information stored on magnetic tape or computer” is covered by the Nevada Public Records Act. Since I am requesting my own records, there obviously is no privacy issue involved.
My request seeks each actual hourly water meter reading, to however many decimal places are recorded in your records, and the day and hour to which each reading pertains. If hourly water meter readings back to January 1, 2017, are no longer available, please consider this a request for hourly water usage readings of account No. [number redacted] as far back as your agency has data.
If there are fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $10.00. I would welcome receiving the requested information electronically via an attachment to an email sent to the email address at the top of this letterhead.
Should you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption in Nevada law you feel justifies the refusal to release the information to me and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.
I look forward to receiving the requested information within the five-day time limit set by the Nevada Public Records Act.
I sat back and waited.
Whatdayaknow? A few days ago I received an email from the water district with daily usage breakout since December and an hourly breakout for that high-usage week in March, during which water was recorded as going through the meter at a rate as high as five gallons a minute for hours on end. While I wasn’t sent all I had requested–I had asked for hourly readings back to January 1–the reply was sufficient enough that I consider my public-records request fulfilled. The water district asked that I sign and return a receipt to “verify” I received its response. I think I instead will let the district print out this blog post and attach it to my request as proof of receipt.
I still don’t know what caused my high water usage reading–it has returned to its previously low level–but I now have some detailed data to work with.
As for the water district, I am grateful it didn’t charge me for the data dump. But I think it is terrible customer service for its employees to falsely state that records are unavailable when in fact state law requires their deliverance upon request. Nor should I have to waste my time drawing up a formal letter for something like this, especially when water conservation in the desert is encouraged. I’m thinking this public-be-damned attitude is linked to the fact that the district has a monopoly where I live on the bulk supply of water–water, by the way, so sketchy in taste that a local newspaper once described it as having a “duststorm-in-a-cup flavor.”
Undoubtedly, public documents about Steve Jobs, Robert Vesco and J. Edgar Hoover are a lot more interesting than print-outs of my Las Vegas water usage. But I take my public records where I find them.