Access to public records in New Mexico varies by county and town, and training among officials in charge of disseminating records is inconsistent, according to a review by The Associated Press.
And, for the most part, records aren’t available online.
Court documents, police reports and other material can be obtained only in person in many New Mexico counties, and officials charge by the page and sometimes will only mail them.
Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said that inconsistency makes it hard for reporters to do their jobs and hampers transparency.
“We’d really like to see public bodies put as much information as possible out there,” Boe said. “Information should be downloadable, searchable and sortable.”
According to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, agencies are required to give the public access to virtually all public records, with a few exceptions. Each state agency and local governmental entities have designated records custodians to whom requests should be addressed.
Jack LeVick, executive director of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, said many agencies don’t want to keep information from the public, but struggle with a lack of funding to make records available online.
Sheriffs’ offices also face employee shortages due to slim budgets.
“We need help,” LeVick said.
Since his term began in January, Attorney General Hector Balderas has given a number of speeches about the need for agencies to be transparent with records. He told a group at the New Mexico Broadcasters Association that he will ask agencies to train employees on the Inspection of Public Records Act.
“New Mexico must do a better job of investing real resources to train government employees to better provide information to the public,” Balderas said.
The New Mexico Supreme Court clarified last week what penalties apply when a government agency or official wrongfully withholds public records.
The ruling said state law allows only actual damages – not punitive or statutory damages – to be awarded to people who can prove that a records request was unlawfully denied.