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Editorial: On new APS boss’ to-do list? Answer records requests

The state’s Inspection of Public Records Act isn’t overly complicated.

It’s based on the premise that New Mexicans are entitled to the greatest possible amount of information about their government, and it sets out some straightforward language about what information is public, along with timelines public bodies are required to follow when members of the public make a request for records.

So it’s difficult to fathom how the state’s largest school district, with a cadre of administrators on the payroll and lawyers on call, could simply ignore IPRA requests for months and then blame it all on general chaos and COVID-19.

The Albuquerque Journal is among those that have submitted requests that went into a dark hole. No production of records. No APS refusal to produce citing exemptions as required by law. Just silence.

The newspaper isn’t alone.

Taylor Smith, an attorney with Garrett Law, recently filed a lawsuit in state district court claiming APS failed to comply with IPRA in multiple ways. “Our client was asking for information as it related to student-on-student violence,” he told the Journal. His lawsuit says his requests were disregarded and there was no follow-up. “To date, the plaintiff has not received any response to his request, or any follow-up phone calls or emails.” His lawsuit seeks statutory damages of $100 per day plus attorney fees – and those can quickly add up to real money; we’re at 90 days and counting. Another case filed in June makes similar allegations.

APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said in an email statement the district “acknowledges difficulties in responding promptly to IPRA requests in the past several months.” She cited “factors outside the custodian of records’ control that have contributed to an unintentional and regrettable lapse in responses.” Those factors included loss of personnel in the department and office relocations prompted by the pandemic.

She said APS apologizes for “any inconvenience” and is seeking solutions to ensure faster compliance with IPRA.

But this isn’t about “inconvenience.” It’s about complying with the law and providing public records that belong to the public.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said state law clearly prohibits public bodies from ignoring these requests.

“It’s the public’s information. … There is no accountability if you don’t have access to information,” she said. “If (records custodians) 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 payroll?”

APS has never been a beacon of transparency. Back before COVID-19, the district after repeated delays provided the Journal with APS police reports that were a masterpiece of redaction. Even the names of schools were blacked out. That case hasn’t yet hit the litigation stage.

Early last week, the Journal submitted a verbal request for another police report. It was the District Attorney’s Office, not APS, that released the information.

The district has a new interim superintendent in Scott Elder. He no doubt has a long “to-do” list with a virtual school opening that, with lots of hard work and a bit of luck, transitions to in-person sometime after Labor Day. But transparency and public accountability are important. IPRA is essential as it plays such a key role in making those things possible.

APS’ stonewalling of the public that pays its bills is absolutely unacceptable, and the new superintendent needs to find a way to fix it ASAP.

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.