We should hope a state district judge’s ruling that Rio Rancho cannot use the state’s Children’s Code to withhold basic public information will be a wake-up call for other records custodians in New Mexico.
But that’s probably wishful thinking. Some custodians of public records in New Mexico have a track record of stubborn refusal to comply with the Inspection of Public Records Act, or IPRA. Judicial rulings and hefty fines rarely seem to deter attempts to dodge the law, which requires open access to almost all public records in state and local government, with few exceptions — the Children’s Code being one of them.
Sandoval County District Judge James Noel ruled last week the city of Rio Rancho should have turned over a police incident report and 911 recordings related to the initial investigation of the December 2021 fatal shooting death of a 2-year-old boy at his family’s home. Noel said he didn’t believe the city’s claim the Children’s Code, which covers abuse and neglect proceedings and juvenile delinquency matters, extends to the law enforcement records created after the death of Lincoln Harmon, the son of a Santa Fe police officer.
Noel found that the interpretation of the law presented by the city could end up keeping the public in the dark about police investigations into children’s deaths. It also created suspicion officers get special treatment.
Under IPRA, the public has the right to take legal action if denied access to public records. Noel required the records be made available to the Santa Fe New Mexican, which along with the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, filed suit in March seeking a ruling the records sought weren’t confidential. He also initiated a compilation of attorney fees and costs the city will be required to pay for failure to produce the records in a timely fashion. In addition, damages up to $100 a day can be assessed.
Noel’s ruling echoed an opinion by the state Attorney General’s Office in March that the records were public. Unfortunately, Rio Rancho doubled down and pursued a fruitless course of action that cost taxpayers both money and confidence their government is transparent and accountable.
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.