Members of a group representing New Mexico county employees are debating whether they will address reform of the state’s public information law.
New Mexico counties held their annual conference in June, and its county attorney affiliate group discussed the idea of revising the state public records inspection law.
“We have a tremendous number of requests, and many of them are very time consuming,” said Michael Eshleman, affiliate unit chief and Sandoval County attorney. “For example, some lawyers make their discovery through the IPRA, and they charge their fees to the taxpayers. It is more difficult for us to serve citizens when we have very broad and heavy demands. »
He said another issue involves requests for videos or documents related to law enforcement actions or investigations.
“We believe there are issues of protecting the rights and privacy of victims,” he said. “As soon as something happens, we sometimes receive requests. We have to work on the investigation, and we have people asking for information on current cases.
He added that some law enforcement units form mental health teams that respond to non-criminal crises. He said people were concerned that body camera footage was being released showing people having “one of the worst days of their lives”.
Eshleman and Chaves County Executive Bill Williams, who spoke separately about the possibility of IPRA reviews at the June 23 meeting of county commissioners, also described what they consider to be unreasonable demands. They said people were requesting large amounts of information in hopes that county staff would not meet IPRA requirements and that registrants would be able to collect fines. Eshleman said he was aware of someone censured by a state court because of such actions.
Part of the problem with the IPRA in its current form, Eschleman says, is that email and electronic communications have changed both the nature of potential public records and the ease with which people can make requests.
“It was a law from which most business was done on paper,” he said.
The law, which consists of various statutes, has been reviewed periodically, including in 2019 when certain exceptions to certain law enforcement records were enacted. These blocked the disclosure of information when victims or non-law enforcement witnesses are involved in certain crimes related to sexual violations, harassment or violent crimes.
Eshleman said any type of proposed legislative reform would have to be approved by the New Mexico Counties Board, which typically adopts legislative priorities in October before they are forwarded to the state legislature.
He added that a formal proposal would not be presented to the board until affiliate attorneys had a chance to speak with more groups in New Mexico counties as well as lawmakers, the Municipal League of New Mexico, school boards and other groups representing state and local government. entities.
New Mexico Deputy Counties Director Joy Esparsen said she believes the discussion will also involve the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and other entities that work to preserve and promote transparency in government agencies. and officials.
“We’re not trying to be picky. We want to be transparent. It’s our obligation,” Esparsen said. “But it’s the fact that some of these things just don’t work properly.”
Esparsen said many county managers and commissioners from all 33 counties in the state were present at the IPRA reform discussion and she thought many of them were talking about receiving requests from the state. IPRA which they believed was intended to “bog down the system” and “raise an accountability issue”.
Others receive requests from companies for lists of all properties sold in five years or other similar information. She said it not only takes a long time to compile, but also a long time to redact information that is not authorized for publication.
Another issue that came up during the discussion, Esparsen said, relates to some of the current requirements that certain government notices must be published in newspapers. She said some counties in New Mexico don’t have independent newspapers in their areas that publish local meeting notices.
Esparsen said the association may not seek to introduce a reform bill at first, but instead consider a memorial bill. She said a memorial bill could create a structure for state lawmakers and interested groups to collaborate on reviews. A memorial bill could also provide funds for a study.
A March 2022 newspaper column written by a former executive director of the Foundation for Open Government said the group’s hotline had received a record number of complaints from the public since the pandemic began in March 2020 and that state governments and premises had begun to face staffing shortages. According to the column, people are complaining that government entities have not provided requested documents or granted access to meetings.
Melanie Majors, acting executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, said IPRA revisions are frequently suggested and brought before the state legislature, whether to deal with fees or other issues.
She said most government documents should be free to citizens, just like other government services, and digitizing them and putting them online would make it easier for state and local governments to comply with requests.
“I believe the IPRA is an important law and compliance is mandatory,” she added in an email. “As citizens become more aware and exercise their rights to their information, it is evident that the number of IPRA requests made to an entity (may) increase. One such remedy to comply with the law and ensure full access to citizens is to put records online with easy access.