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UNM gets external advice on public records

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Swimming in public records requests, the University of New Mexico recently turned to an outside attorney for advice on how to handle them – and perhaps how to change the state’s public records law.

But a university spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday that UNM does not plan to pursue any legislative changes to the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act – though it has started asking employees to track how long they spend searching for and pulling the records.

UNM sought IPRA advice from the Albuquerque law firm Modrall Sperling, according to a Nov. 9 proposal letter Modrall attorney Zachary McCormick wrote to university counsel Elsa Cole, which recently was obtained and published on Daniel Libit’s watchdog website, NMFishbowl.com.

McCormick described the proposed scope of work to include advising “in connection with questions concerning compliance with and possible amendemtns (sic)” to IPRA.

University spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair said Tuesday that UNM has “no plans to pursue any legislative changes to IPRA” and described the engagement as a “one-time outside legal opinion to advise on our policies and fulfillment of requirements of the law,” given the uptick in public records requests.

McCormick did not respond to Journal voice or email messages.

UNM has received more than 630 requests in 2017, up from 387 in 2016.

Interim President Chaouki Abdallah earlier this year said the volume is “grinding.” UNM has a single public records custodian to manage the flow, distributing the requests across campus for fulfillment by the appropriate departments and individuals.

“We have seen a significant increase in IPRA requests this year, many of which were quite broad, and we are actively looking for ways to improve our response process,” Blair wrote. “Recently, we have included in our initial call for responses a request to respondents to track the amount of time that is spent in locating and providing the responsive documents.”

IPRA does not allow agencies to charge fees to produce records based on how long employees spend fulfilling requests, but Blair said UNM can use the information to make internal decisions.

“While there is no explicit plan for using the data, once we do have it, it may be helpful to departments which have a large number of hours dedicated to IPRA to evaluate staff assignments to make operations more efficient, or to demonstrate to requesters why a request will take more time to fulfill,” Blair said in a written statement.

She could not immediately provide the expense UNM incurred for the outside legal work. McCormick’s letter cited he would charge UNM $350 per hour, though rates could vary if the work included other members of the firm.

New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Peter St. Cyr said he would prefer UNM devote resources toward creating an online records repository.

“We’ll have online, on-demand transparency, and it won’t be a burden on a records custodian,” he said.

UNM helped draft an IPRA bill that Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, introduced during the 2017 Legislature that would have added a new exemption to the law.

The bill, which was not specific to higher education, would have exempted from disclosure victim and witness names in certain crimes.

The legislation ultimately was pocket vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez, and Blair said the Modrall Sperling consultation was unrelated.

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