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Editorial: All should heed AG’s opinion on records costs

The state Attorney General’s Office took University of New Mexico officials to task last week, citing several instances where the university violated the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act.

The 32-page “transparency report,” which the AG’s office issued Sept. 6, looked at the most recent 11 complaints dating back to 2015. It blasts the university for a number of violations and states “UNM has failed to ensure that the citizens of New Mexico are given the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts” of public officers and employees.

Public agencies throughout the state should take note of the findings, particularly the one related to charges for electronic copies of public records – because UNM isn’t the only government agency in New Mexico that’s violated the law in this manner. (Rio Rancho doubled down on excessive records charges last year after the AG’s Office ruled in a similar manner. And it bears repeating a state District Court judge ruled in March that the city of Albuquerque owed a former employee more than $100,000 for deliberately withholding records. Not complying with IPRA has high fiscal as well as ethical costs.)

UNM was charging 35 cents per page for electronic document transmission, after providing the first 20 pages for free.

The AG points out that those charges for electronic records violate IPRA; it directed the university to re-evaluate its fees and charge only the “actual costs for transmitting or downloading the electronic records.”

The good news is that UNM had already started reviewing its policy and had stopped charging the 35 cents per page on Sept. 1, pending its review.

We urge all state and local government entities in New Mexico to begin reviewing their policies to ensure they’re not breaking the law by overcharging for electronic records. The AG concludes that public bodies can only charge the actual costs for transmitting or downloading electronic records – and that cost is often zero.

It’s worth noting that isn’t a new interpretation.

The attorney general enforces state transparency laws. And while courts have the ultimate say when it comes to interpreting those laws, the AG’s opinion carries significant weight. Kudos to state Attorney General Hector Balderas for holding UNM’s feet to the fire on this issue and for fighting for greater transparency.

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.

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