All Kristin Cunnar wanted was a list of active licensed social workers in the Albuquerque area.
Cunnar called the state Board of Social Work Examiners, part of the Regulation and Licensing Department, and was told there was no list for Albuquerque social workers, but she could get a statewide list.
For a fee of $250.
“I’m a small businesswoman. That’s a lot of money to me,” and certainly, she said, a burden on low-income people and elderly people on fixed incomes. The steep fee also demonstrates that the board is “disconnected from the people they’re serving,” she said.
Cunnar, a licensed massage therapist, then exchanged emails with Claudia Armijo, the deputy general counsel for the Regulation and Licensing Department, who informed Cunnar that she was “correctly advised by the board’s staff” that the list would cost $250.
Ben Cloutier, spokesman for the state Regulation and Licensing Department, said the $250 fee was established at least a decade ago.
“Each board is required to set a reasonable fee for a list of their licensees and the work that goes into producing the list,” he said.
The social worker database has about 4,000 names. Each time it is requested, it must be updated and a new list or document must be created.
He said requests for the social worker database generally do not come from individuals; rather, they come from companies looking to create a marketing list of contacts to whom they might sell products and services.
Who asks for the list or why should not be a factor, said Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
“The ultimate use of a list is not only irrelevant, but any custodian responding to a request for a list under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act can not even ask how that information is to be used,” she said.
The cost of such a list should be the same, regardless if the request comes from a commercial entity, a journalist or a private citizen, and that cost should “reflect the actual cost of producing the list,” she said.
The Journal contacted the board’s Armijo after Cunnar shared her frustrations about the steep $250 cost. She did not return phone calls and her office referred questions to department spokesman Cloutier.
Armijo did, however, send Cunnar an email on April 28 – about 10 days after her request and after the Journal‘s call about the $250 cost – that indicated if Cunnar made an IPRA request for the list, the board would make the 178 pages available at 25 cents a page, or just under $45.
As an alternative, she could inspect the list in person and at no cost by scheduling a visit to the Regulation and Licensing Department’s Santa Fe or Albuquerque offices.
An electronic version of that list was not offered at the time, but later that day Armijo sent a second email to Cunnar, saying she had “been advised” that the department could make the full list available to her on a CD for $5. The $5 CD fee is reasonable, Boe said. Under IPRA, agencies can recover their “actual costs” by charging no more than $1 a page. Agencies can also recover the costs for producing electronic copies on, say, a thumb drive, a CD or a DVD.
The statute does not specify a minimum or maximum, but the “actual cost,” Boe said, should not include the labor to produce the list, regardless of the format, “because there’s nothing in the statute that permits it, and we think that’s their job.”
While Cunnar said she was thrilled that she could finally get her hands on the social worker list for an affordable $5, she wondered, “Why couldn’t they have just done that in the first place?”
That’s still not clear, nor is it clear if it was a one-time concession to her.
Last week, the Journal called the New Mexico Board of Social Work Examiners to ask, again, how much the list of current and active licensed social workers would cost. A woman who identified herself as the administrative assistant to the board quoted the $250 fee.
‘Unlock that data’
As a licensed massage therapist, Cunnar says she wanted the list because she prefers consulting with social workers on a variety of topics, including résumé strategies, personal and professional goals, financial decisions, retirement plans and ways to boost her self-confidence.
And she was surprised by the fact the state could not break out the Albuquerque list.
“I explained I wasn’t looking for a list of social workers from the whole state, just from the Albuquerque area,” she said. “They told me they were unable to break out the list by city or county. Can you imagine that? They’re using a computer program that can’t do something as simple as that. The technology exists. It’s out there. It’s not uncommon.”
Cloutier said consumers can look up individual licensees, as well as reported complaints and disciplinary actions, at the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department website, www.rld.state.nm.us.
But that would not help Cunnar, who needed the list of social workers.
Boe noted there is a separate provision under the Public Records Act that some public bodies interpret to mean they also can charge a licensing fee when the requested information is a database. The problem is that “some state agencies take the position that any document that’s on an Excel spreadsheet is a database,” Boe said.
No portion of the initial $250 fee quoted to Cunnar was intended as a licensing fee, Cloutier said.
Nationwide, the trend in federal, state and local governments is toward the creation of open data formats, in which large volumes of information are readily available at no cost, often on a website.
“That way, anyone can use it and slice and dice it and come up with trends or get access to names,” Boe said. Unfortunately, New Mexico has been “slow to get on the open data bandwagon.”
Taxpayer dollars were used to create the databases in the first place.
“We want to unlock that data,” she said.