Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico’s largest school district acknowledges it has dropped the ball in responding to requests for public records, a problem that has resulted in at least two lawsuits that could end up costing the district thousands of dollars in penalties and attorney fees.
An open government transparency group says Albuquerque Public Schools is clearly violating the Inspection of Public Records Act, a long-standing state law that ensures access to public information. The law spells out timelines, requirements and exemptions for public entities like APS on releasing records, including documents, audio and video.
It very clearly prohibits public bodies from ignoring these requests, said Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
But that is what APS has done, according to court documents. APS has also failed to respond to most records requests from the Albuquerque Journal for months.
In an emailed statement, APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the Records Department “acknowledges difficulties in responding promptly to Inspection of Public Records Act requests in the past several months.”
“Factors outside the custodian of records’ control have contributed to an unintentional and regrettable lapse in responses,” Armenta wrote. She said some of the issues include an increase in requests, a loss of personnel in the department and office relocations prompted by the pandemic. A records custodian is an individual designated by a public entity to handle requests for records.
“Albuquerque Public Schools apologizes for any inconvenience our current situation may have created and is aggressively seeking solutions to ensure faster IPRA compliance in the future,” Armenta continued.
Taylor Smith, an attorney with Garrett Law, recently filed a lawsuit in 2nd Judicial District Court against APS and its records custodian claiming the district failed to comply with IPRA in multiple ways.
“Our client was asking for information as it related to student-on-student violence,” Smith told the Journal.
His lawsuit says requests for information were disregarded and there was no follow-up communication.
Smith added that the records request made in March was for a separate lawsuit concerning violence at James Monroe Middle School, but APS’ failure to fulfill the request or respond is preventing that case from moving forward.
“To date, (the) plaintiff has not received any response to his request, or any follow-up phone calls or emails,” the lawsuit says.
It also alleges that, as of the time of filing, APS has been in violation of the law for 90 days and counting. The lawsuit seeks statutory damages of $100 a day from March 26 until the district provides the records or denies the request, in addition to other costs and attorney fees.
Smith said IPRA is a crucial mechanism for getting information.
“These kinds of laws provide us opportunity to shed light and make sure that we hold government officials accountable,” he said.
Another case in 2nd Judicial District Court filed in June outlines a similar situation.
In February, a request was made for investigation documents within the district. But the lawsuit says that, aside from initial communication, APS went quiet and never fulfilled the request.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the district to turn over the records and seeks statutory damages of $100 per day from February 2, along with attorney fees.
Armenta declined to discuss the lawsuits, saying the district doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
More than half a dozen records requests filed by the Journal – from as early as February and as recently as June – have also gone unanswered. The requested documents relate to investigations within the district, correspondence between Homeland Security and top APS officials, and remote learning after schools were shut down, among other issues.
While some of the Journal’s requests were made after the pandemic began, the Attorney General’s Office has warned public entities that they must still adhere to IPRA and “all deadlines should be satisfied to the fullest extent possible.”
The AG’s Office has also advised public entities that if the state of emergency creates a problem in providing records, they should keep up with communication.
“It’s the public’s information … There is no accountability if you don’t have access to information,” Majors said.
“If they aren’t spending their time complying with the Inspection of Public Records Act, what are they doing with their time if they are still on the public payroll?” Majors asked about record custodians.
The transparency advocate said IPRA is crucial to the community as a whole.
“Records are part of what makes up our system of democracy,” Majors said.