The city of Rio Rancho violated state public records law by requiring a $30 payment before allowing access to 911 recordings and should re-evaluate its policies, according to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
In an Oct. 16 letter to the city clerk, Assistant Attorney General Lori Chavez recommended that Rio Rancho allow Dianne Goodman free access to review the calls she initially requested in January, noting the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act requires agencies provide “the opportunity to inspect records without charge.” Under the law, public entities can only charge if the requester seeks copies.
The opinion also states that IPRA allows agencies to charge the costs associated with downloading copies, including the cost of the disc or storage device, but not “for identifying and isolating records.” It called the $30 fee for downloading the records excessive.
The city “violated IPRA by failing to allow inspection of records prior to charging for downloading copies of the records and may possibly have violated IPRA when charging a $30 fee for downloading copies of the records,” Chavez wrote to Rio Rancho City Clerk Stephen Ruger.
Rio Rancho has since provided Goodman with the audio and said it would refund her payment.
But the city “disagrees with the nonbinding opinion of the Attorney General’s Office and (has) concerns over their interpretation of relevant statutory language,” spokeswoman Annemarie Garcia said in an email to the Journal. However, the city will review what she called the AG’s “suggestions” to determine if it will amend its policy.
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government lauded the AG’s determination, saying the Rio Rancho fees “are essentially a records tax.”
“It’s a bad policy to subsidize costs for inefficient records management with unreasonable fees,” Peter St. Cyr, NMFOG’s executive director, said in an email. “We encourage the city to stop shifting the burden of their inefficiency to citizens who can often least afford it. Rather than discourage residents from requesting information and exercising their basic right to know, city managers should instead make providing information to the public a routine job duty.”
Public agencies generally heed the attorney general’s determinations on IPRA, office spokesman James Hallinan said.
“However, IPRA provides that an action to enforce its provisions may be brought by the Attorney General, District Attorneys or any person whose written request for inspection has been denied,” he wrote, adding that the office has taken public entities to court over IPRA – mostly recently in January with a suit against Española Public Schools.
Goodman on Jan. 10 had requested all calls and reports for calls for service for an address in Rio Rancho since 2012. The city told Goodman such recordings were not available until they were copied and put into a different format, and that a $30 per call fee was required in advance.
Goodman filed a complaint with the AG’s Office.
Rio Rancho indicated the fee “offsets costs incurred to identify, isolate and reproduce copies” and had been in place for 20 years, according to Chavez’s letter. But that policy does not jibe with the law, Chavez wrote.
“There is no exception under the IPRA that permits agencies to deny requesters the opportunity to inspect records in favor of a policy requiring pre-inspection payment for copies of records due to the inability by the agency to reproduce the record without retrieving and reproducing excerpts and then converting ‘data to an audio format’ which can be listened to by the requester,” the letter states.
The assistant attorney general also noted that the city’s own IPRA form puts the cost of an audio or video recording at $5. Rio Rancho’s $30 fee appears “excessive,” and Chavez recommended the city re-evaluate its fee structure for 911 recordings to ensure IPRA compliance.
Goodman said Rio Rancho emailed her the audio recordings Thursday and would process a refund for the $30 she already paid.
A serial public records seeker who says she has filed hundreds of requests across jurisdictions to see what’s going on in government, Goodman said her crusade is not about a refund but about righting a wrong that most people don’t have time to tackle. She said she wants Rio Rancho to amend its policy to charge just $5 per copy of 911 calls and plans to advocate for that change.
“I do this for the citizens, really,” she said. “I don’t do it for myself.”