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Crises are seized or surrendered

While covering the ongoing news over the busing of mental patients out of Nevada by a state hospital, I called former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan to interview him on the impact these kinds of disputes have on the state’s ability to attract news businesses. Bryan created the economic development system that existed for three decades until Gov. Brian Sandoval dismantled it two years ago.

While listening to Bryan’s comments, it occurred to me that his political and governing style provided an interesting contrast to that of Sandoval. I covered Bryan as governor, and I imagined how he would have reacted to the Sacramento Bee’s expose of the way Nevada has sent hundreds of unaccompanied patients out of state to destinations where they knew no one, carrying little in the way of sustenance.

I have no doubt that as soon as Gov. Bryan heard of such a thing, he would have called responsible officials into his office to bring him up to speed on what was going on. He would probably have put someone he trusted in charge of solving the problem fast. Bryan, a Democrat, would have spoken up publicly early to get out in front of the problem and prevent Republicans from taking control of the issue. He would have made sure his office was a source of continuing information for news entities so that he had some control over the public dialogue.

By contrast, Gov. Sandoval has kept his head down throughout the mental patients matter, declining comment to the Bee, trying to avoid being interviewed, issuing a statement in the name of an underling, later issuing a statement in his own name but declining to give it in a forum where he might have to take follow-up questions.

With the governor’s office unresponsive, newsrooms looked elsewhere for information, and there stood the Nevada Democratic Party, ready to fill the need.

The Democrats have monitored developments hour by hour, sending out news releases informing reporters across the state of new information. Stories that broke in Southern Nevada came to Northern reporters more quickly than normal, for instance, and California developments made their way to Nevada fast.

On April 30 at 3:26 p.m., for instance, the Sacramento Bee posted a new story on California legislators contacting the Obama administration to seek an investigation of Nevada’s conduct in the matter. The Nevada Democratic Party had a link and quotes from the article in newsroom email in-boxes by 3:48 p.m.

The Democrats have sent out dozens of news releases containing mostly news tips, plus some overheated language characterizing Sandoval’s lethargy.

Far from seizing the initiative as Bryan would likely have done, Sandoval’s handling of the crisis is more comparable to former Gov. Jim Gibbons’ handling of the outbreak of hepatitis C cases at a politically well-connected clinic in Las Vegas in 2008.

Gibbons trivialized the outbreak, scapegoated local government, blamed reporters for public concern, and opposed changes in inspections or regulation. “I think if you’d had gross negligence, you’d have a higher number (of hepatitis cases),” Gibbons said. With Gibbons declining to provide leadership, the initiative moved on.

As public reaction against him developed, Gibbons tried to shift responsibility elsewhere by demanding the resignation of members of the Board of Medical Examiners and their executive director, just as Sandoval last week announced some firings.

Gibbons took stronger and stronger actions as he dug himself deeper, but an initiative, once lost, is not easily reclaimed.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.