What does it say when the New Mexico agency charged with enforcing the state’s open records law is found to have withheld public documents for nearly a year?
Such is the sad state of affairs for government transparency in New Mexico.
Usually, it’s the Attorney General’s Office telling local governments to comply with the act. But a judge recently imposed the maximum statutory damages possible after finding the AG’s Office had failed to comply with the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) in connection to a request for documents made by former chief of the Albuquerque Police Department, Michael Geier.
IPRA is a state law that requires open access to almost all public records in state and local government, with few exceptions. Under IPRA, the public has the right to take legal action if denied access to public records. The Attorney General has the statutory authority to enforce IPRA, as do district attorneys.
In May 2021, Geier requested all correspondence between APD and the AG’s Office related to him. When nearly a year passed without anything being handed over, he sued.
In her order, Judge Lisa Chavez Ortega characterized the AG’s failure to comply with IPRA as “inexplicable,” and awarded more than $40,000 in fines and attorney fees.
The public is harmed twice with this outcome. If the AG’s Office can’t abide by IPRA, it loses its legitimacy to command others to do so. In addition, the public has to foot the bill for the agency’s incompetence.
Chavez Ortega ordered the AG’s Office to pay Geier damages of $100 a day for 354 days — a total of $35,400 — as well as $5,889 in attorney fees and out-of-pocket costs of $190.
Incumbent Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas is term-limited and cannot seek reelection. Whoever succeeds him — Democrat Raúl Torrez or Republican Jeremy Gay — should make repairing this breach of trust a priority.
New Mexicans deserve an attorney general who consistently walks the talk about transparency.
Enforce disclosure laws
While we’re on the subject of transparency, it’s time for lawmakers to take up the recommendations of the state’s ethics commission to strengthen New Mexico’s disclosure laws for its “citizen Legislature.”
Since lawmakers don’t draw legislative salaries, most have day jobs. Filing annual disclosures about their income sources and property is a measure of transparency intended to shine a light on lawmakers’ potential conflicts of interest.
And it’s not just legislators. Candidates, appointees, agency heads and Senate-confirmed members of boards and commissions are all supposed to file financial disclosures as a condition of holding their offices.
“Financial disclosures are essential to public confidence in government,” says Jeremy Farris, executive director of the State Ethics Commission. The ethics agency has been pushing for some time to strengthen New Mexico’s disclosure law. It has proposed an updated version, which may be taken up by legislators next year.
Current compliance rates enforce the idea the law could use teeth. The Journal reported June 11 that more than 20% of the individuals required to file annual disclosures have not done so, prompting the Ethics Commission to authorize “all necessary action to ensure that those government officials who are required to disclose, in fact, do,” Farris said.
At one point this year, he said, hundreds of the 650 people required to file disclosures had not. That’s down to about 155 now, a rate Farris described as “unacceptable,” especially since the individuals have been notified. Those 155 will be issued demand letters and, if necessary, be taken to court.
But meeting the requirements of the current law is still a bar too low. Many lawmakers, for example, report without the specificity that could reveal relationships and/or conflicts of interest, saying they draw income from a law firm, consulting, farming or similarly broad categories.
We need better information from government officials and real consequences for not providing it.
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.