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Editorial: Rio Rancho blows money fighting losing records cases

Rio Rancho city government has doubled down on a bad bet against public transparency and accountability – wasting additional taxpayer dollars in the process.

Back in January, Rio Rancho resident Dianne Goodman filed a formal Inspection of Public Records Act request seeking all 911 calls and call-for-service reports for a specific address in Rio Rancho since 2012. But a city official told Goodman the audio recordings of 911 calls were unavailable until they were copied and put into a different format – and that a fee of $30 per call was required in advance.

Assistant state Attorney General Lori Chavez informed City Clerk Stephen Ruger that inspection of public records should cost the requester nothing, the $30-per-recording fee was “excessive” and the city cannot charge for “identifying and isolating records.” Chavez recommended city officials re-evaluate the fee structure to ensure IPRA compliance.

Instead, City Attorney Gregory Lauer went looking for a loophole and came up with a special provision in a separate statute, the Public Records Act, that the city claims allows municipalities to charge a requester for staff time and related expenses. In the meantime, the city provided Goodman with the records and offered to refund her money.

Lauer and Ruger would do well to review section 14-2-5 of the Inspection of Public Records Act, which states in part: “Recognizing that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, the intention of the Legislature in enacting the Inspection of Public Records Act is to ensure … all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees. … to provide persons with such information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officers and employers.” (Emphasis added.)

In layman’s terms, as the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government has long argued, providing public records is part of public employees’ jobs, and so IPRA does not permit charges for the labor in producing a record.

Unfortunately, some continue to see it as a revenue stream or, more likely, a way to deny the public its public records. And Goodman’s case is not unusual. Rio Rancho resident Charles Arasim filed an IPRA request earlier this year for 911 calls and computer-aided dispatch reports for a Nov. 3 incident at the Bank of America call center, according to court documents. (A suicide had occurred there that day.)

The city clerk responded with the often cited – and regularly misinterpreted – “ongoing law enforcement investigation” canard and refused to provide the records. Arasim filed a petition with the court and, after a district judge ordered the city to produce the records or explain why it wouldn’t, the city said Arasim could have the records. The city now wants that suit dropped, and a hearing on the matter is set for today. This isn’t Arasim’s first rodeo: He won a $20,500 judgment against the city of Albuquerque earlier this year in connection with an IPRA for police records.

Although the state attorney general and a judge have essentially told Rio Rancho to put up or shut up, Ruger and Lauer persist in a quest at taxpayer expense to avoid providing public records as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

Back in July, City Councilor Cheryl Everett responded to numerous public comments about non-compliance with IPRA and the Open Meetings Act with “I believe a lot of what we’ve heard tonight simply doesn’t ring true – this is not the city I know, is not the city government I’ve been a part of, is not the staff that serves the citizens of Rio Rancho.” Does she still think that in light of the records denials, fee gouging and AG and court rebukes?

Someone – Everett, other councilors or Mayor Gregg Hull, who is running for re-election – should finally recognize the problem and ensure City of Vision employees read IPRA, then comply with records requests and protect residents’ right to know as well as the city’s checkbook.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.