Attorney General: Video recordings of legislative proceedings are public records
Archived video recordings of the Legislature’s floor debate and hearings are public records by state law, an opinion issued Friday by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said.
The opinion, requested by Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, said no other state laws allow the recordings to be kept confidential, as they have been in the past, and there’s no need to pursue a bill to clarify the issue.
In fact, the Clerk of the Nebraska Legislature’s Office has provided the recordings twice since this summer, for the associated costs, when public-records requests were made, said Assistant Clerk of the Legislature Richard Brown.
Geist requested the opinion to clarify whether legislation was needed to make the videos public records. She had introduced a bill in the 2018 session, but the Legislature’s Executive Board voted in April to not make the videos available until a new bill could be introduced in the 2019 session.
Some senators on the board thought more research was needed over the interim. Speaker Jim Scheer indicated the Legislature didn’t have the money or the staff to make the videos readily available.
Brown said that this summer, the clerk’s office provided two such recordings. The first came after a public-records request was made and denied, and the person requesting the video, Debra Portz, petitioned the attorney general’s office for a determination on whether the recordings were a public record.
The attorney general’s office then directed Clerk Patrick O’Donnell to produce the requested recordings, and he did. Brown said he filled another public-records request about seven weeks later. They were provided at the cost of the flash drives to which they were transferred, he said.
O’Donnell, in initially denying the request, said that rather than public records, the recordings were electronic files used by legislative staff to create written transcripts of the proceedings, the opinion said. He also noted storage requirements and staff time to manage the files were costly; he lacked staff to handle requests by the public; and he lacked technology and search capability to handle the extremely large files.
Written transcripts of the proceedings are available to the public online once they are completed, but those transcripts are not immediately produced and can take months to become available.
Executive Board chairman Dan Watermeier said Friday most senators want to see the recordings more readily available but there are licensing issues with NET, which broadcasts the debates and hearings, and closed-captioning requirements. There’s also an issue in making the recordings certified transcripts.
“I’m supportive of the idea of making this public,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure we do it right. ... We have other people involved other than the Legislature.”