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Survey finds N.M. residents often denied access to government records

By The Associated Press

12.11.00

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County, city, court and school officials routinely violate state law by failing to release public records such as budgets, public employees' salaries and reports of crimes and court cases, a statewide survey by New Mexico newspapers found.

Three of every 10 requests for access to records were unsuccessful in a check of 210 government offices in all 33 New Mexico counties.

Member newspapers of the New Mexico Press Association and the Associated Press along with the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government sponsored the freedom-of-information audit. The goal was to determine whether records are readily available to the general public.

"When requests for public records are denied about a third or more of the time, it's obvious that some public officials are either ignorant of the public's rights and their own duties, or arrogant about doing their jobs," said Bob Johnson, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government.

New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act casts a wide net in defining public records. The law covers written documents and letters, tapes, photographs and records stored in computers or transmitted by e-mail.

"All persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees," state law declares as public policy.

To measure the gap between what the law says and how it is applied by public employees, newspaper representatives made oral and written requests for records with agencies across New Mexico from mid-July through early November.

The survey found:

County and city law enforcement agencies were the worst in making records available to the public. Requests failed in 13 of 31 sheriff's departments (42%) and 11 of 32 police departments (34%).

Twelve of 34 magistrate courts (35%) failed to provide records.

Five of 27 county administrative offices (19%) and seven of 32 city administrative offices (22%) didn't provide requested documents.

Twelve of 44 public school districts (27%) and one of 10 colleges and universities (10%) failed to provide records.

Even when agencies did release records, their compliance frequently was less than complete. Overall, agencies provided at least some records in 149, or 71%, of requests. But on average, one in five of those disclosures lacked some requested information or document.

In failing to provide the requested records, some agencies maintained that the information was confidential. In other instances, supervisors were unavailable to give permission to employees to provide documents. Some workers said they were too busy. Agencies also failed to meet the law's timetable for turning over materials; some never responded to written requests.

Public records can serve as a tool for people to find out more about their communities as well as monitor the performance of government.

A parent can explore the finances of a local school or a would-be homeowner might research neighborhood safety using crime records.

Citizens are entitled to know how much a school superintendent or principal is paid or amounts the school district spends yearly. The public can look at misdemeanor and traffic offenses filed in magistrate courts and find out how the cases were resolved — with fines or jail time.

The New Mexico survey found that in most cases information was handed over upon written or oral requests — although it could be a test of patience and perseverance for the person seeking the records.

State law declares, "No person requesting records shall be required to state the reason for inspecting the records." But individuals were asked for their names and why they wanted records in two of every five requests in the survey.

In one out of seven requests, people had to quote or show state law before gaining access to records.

Confronted with requests for access to documents, government workers often displayed a lack of knowledge about the law or an attitude of secrecy about records related to public business and maintained at taxpayer expense.

"We don't show our records to anyone," an employee in the Eddy County Sheriff's Department replied when initially asked for the daily crime log. It was later provided, however. The person seeking the records was taken into a room by two employees and asked about his profession and why he wanted the crime records. Some form of identification also was demanded before he could look at a crime incident report.

The Moriarty school district superintendent asked police to check the car license plate of an individual who submitted a request for financial records.

A Clovis police sergeant acknowledged that a crime log was a public record but refused to provide access unless the person gave a reason for wanting to look at it. No copies were allowed, the policeman said, because the person might go on a "fishing expedition" with the information.

Occasionally, records requests met with cooperation from helpful public employees.

The magistrate court clerk in Taos demonstrated how to access records through an office computer, explained the court's procedure for logging cases and said it was no bother to provide the help because "all of our records are public information."

The New Mexico records survey was similar to ones conducted in more than a dozen states in the past several years. Indiana's open-records law was revamped in 1999 in response to problems documented by an audit of government agencies.

Johnson said results of the New Mexico survey were similar to those in other states.

"This shows that New Mexico government agencies are no worse but certainly no better than in other states," he said.

The survey covered basic public records. Sheriff's department and police were asked for a daily log of crimes and an "incident report" of a crime. Counties, cities and schools were asked for financial information, such as agency budgets and salaries and expenses of administrators. Magistrate courts were asked for a one-month listing of complaints filed by law enforcement and the disposition of the cases.

Some auditors were reporters, others were citizens asked by a newspaper to participate. They completed standardized reports of each audit, including narratives of their experiences. The participants — to help ensure neutral treatment by agencies — were instructed not to identify their employers or describe themselves as part of a survey testing the state's open-records law.

Certain records remain confidential under state law, including letters of reference for jobs or certain medical treatment records and police records revealing confidential sources or people accused but not charged with a crime.

Despite those exceptions, state law makes clear that anyone — a local resident or a total stranger — has a right to review a basic police incident report about a burglary and arrest of a suspect or a "police blotter" of recent crimes.

News organizations sometimes can get immediate access to records, particularly when reporters regularly cover a government office and know the agency's workers. However, members of the public may find it harder because they are unfamiliar to government employees who are custodians of the records.

People denied access to records can call the attorney general or a local district attorney. They are the officials responsible for enforcing state law. The Foundation for Open Government also maintains a telephone hotline, 1-800/284-6634, for people who encounter problems getting records.

Related

State audit: Public records often more closed than open in Washington
Survey by 26 news organizations finds Washington state residents can’t be certain that local government will give them information to which they’re entitled.  10.22.01

Prospects grim for open access to state's public records
Analysis Sept. 11 attacks prompt governor to call for new exemption; newspaper advocate hopes to hold the line on current law.  01.19.02

Public records not always open to Colorado residents, survey finds
One in three local government agencies failed to comply with state records law during study done by Colorado press groups.  11.16.00

Survey: Iowa residents often denied access to public records
Investigation conducted by 13 newspapers reveals government employees need more training on open-records law, says state attorney general.  09.25.00

Oklahoma police often keep lock on open records, survey finds
One in four city, county law enforcement agencies did not comply with requests for public documents during study of citizen access to government records.  09.01.00

FOI UPDATE 2000: State and local developments
Open government at the state and local levels is gaining some ground, despite growing concerns about privacy in the Digital Age. A March 2000 survey of Freedom of Information developments resulted in these key findings:  02.13.01

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