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Panel OKs shielding lawmakers’ emails

SANTA FE – A House committee on Friday approved a rule to govern how lawmakers’ records such as emails should be released under the Inspection of Public Records Act, without clarifying widely differing opinions on how the proposal would require emails to be made public.

One of the rule’s sponsors, House Minority Leader Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs, said his intent in House Concurrent Resolution 1 is to make clear that most emails sent or received by lawmakers are shielded from public release because individuals can’t create public records unless they act in a group on the House floor or in a legislative committee.

However, a co-sponsor, House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said that some lawmaker email records that relate to government work should be made public under the proposed rule, which would create a procedure for how those records are reviewed and released by a legislative agency.

Despite the apparently differing views on the proposal, the House Rules and Order of Business Committee voted unanimously Friday to approve it and advance it to the House floor. The proposed rule change would require a two-thirds majority vote to pass the chamber before heading to the Senate for review.

If approved by both chambers, the rule change would require the Legislative Council Service to establish procedures on how lawmakers’ records are made public.

Council Service Director Raul Burciaga said Friday that under the proposed rule, requests for lawmakers’ emails would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by Council Service attorneys. Details of the policies governing what would be released are not included in the rule change outlined in House Concurrent Resolution 1.

“It makes it hard to figure out whether or not to support it, because what they’re voting on doesn’t explain what the final result is going to be,” said Gwyneth Doland, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “That is worrisome, especially considering what we saw (Friday) that there is a wide gulf in interpretation of what this proposal does and what should be done.”

The Foundation for Open Government has said the proposed rule would allow lawmakers special protections from IPRA that other public officials such as city councilors or county commissioners don’t receive.

But lawmakers discussing the rule change Friday repeatedly cited unique immunities for legislators in the state Constitution that protects some communications from disclosure.

“The way I view it is this is a constitutional issue and a right of privacy,” Bratton said Friday. “Unless they (the general public) want to go to court and get a court order to listen in on my telephone conversations or monitor my email traffic, they have no right to that.”

Martinez agreed that some emails, such as private communications between lawmakers and their constituents, would be protected even if they relate to public business.

The Inspection of Public Records Act says emails are subject to the act – which has various exemptions – if they deal with public business and are held by or on behalf of a public body. However, the law has many exemptions, ranging from trade secrets to matters of opinion in a personnel file, that shield them from public inspection.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal