Demand a lot from your representative government

As we watch Russia illustrate the dangers of authoritarian governments, let’s not take for granted our public meetings and freedom of information laws, which help make democracy almost a reality.

As New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) states, because “representative government depends on an informed electorate. . . all people have a right to as much information as possible” about their government. The IPRA states that, for all levels of government, “providing people with this information is an essential function of representative government and forms an integral part of the routine duties of public servants and employees”. Read this to officials who act as if your requests for information are interrupting their real work. To answer you East their real work.

Putin would jail you for suggesting that. Some authoritarians in this country evade these basic principles.

The courts have taken these words seriously. They ordered governments to comply, interpreted the IPRA exceptions narrowly as required by law, and used the IPRA’s penalty provisions to punish government offices for violations. The law requires courts to compel these offices to pay the attorney fees of citizens who win IPRA cases. It allows for additional damages, which courts have been less likely to award, in part because many cases involve newspapers and TV stations that want the documents but aren’t as concerned about compensation for the wasted time and effort. For certain violations, courts can charge offices up to $100 for each day they are not compliant. Yeah, it’s from the treasury; but wasteful spending is public information and could help the public consider change.

IPRA’s exceptions are few and limited, although officials attempt to hide behind them, often without legal basis. Confidential attorney-client communications, legitimate trade secrets, and physical/mental examinations of detainees are exceptions, as they should be. The same applies to court filings that are subject to a protective order. (You can ask the court to lift such an order.)

Two key exceptions that officials stretch to protect information are for law enforcement records and “matters of opinion in personnel records or student cumulative records.” Officials who withhold entire files cost public money. Officials must produce documents, redact (or obscure) opinions. If a police report contains an opinion on an officer’s performance, that opinion exists outside of someone’s personnel file and must be produced. The same applies to complaints from citizens.

Along with law enforcement records, the law only exempts records that reveal “sources, methods, or confidential information” or the names and personal information of (a) persons suspected but not charged with a crime or (b) victims or witnesses of certain sexual encounters – related and/or violent crimes, such as violence against a family member, harassment or criminal sexual penetration. (The names of law enforcement witnesses are public information.) Of course, you can’t protect entire investigative files; but try telling that to some sheriffs.

The law facilitates the request for documents. Describe the records and include your name, address and phone number. Needless to say why you need the recordings. If you don’t want to use your name, ask a lawyer or friend to request it. (If you ask orally, officials must provide documents, but cannot be punished for not doing so.) Government offices may charge copying fees, but not for the time needed to identify, locate and collect documents .

These are rights that we all share. Don’t let a cop or government employee tell you otherwise. Obstructing your investigation effectively censors anything you might write about the fruits of that investigation.

Las Cruces resident Peter Goodman writes, takes pictures and occasionally practices law. His blog on http://soledadcanyon.blogspot.com/ contains additional information about this column.

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