The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, NMFOG, has released the results of its audit to determine compliance by state agencies and counties with public records requests.
The Inspection of Public Records Act requests (IPRAs) were sent by a third party to 122 New Mexico agencies and boards and all of the state’s 33 counties. The requester sought copies of any IPRA logs kept by the public body in 2014, 2015 and 2016. If the government body did not track IPRA requests, the public body was asked to respond with that information.
Thirty-two of the state agencies (or 26%) and 14 of the counties (or 42%) delivered the documents on the same or next day after the request. The remainder of the responses were sent two to 45 days after the initial IPRA filing.
IPRA requires public bodies to permit inspection of public records “immediately or as soon as practicable under the circumstances, but not later than fifteen days after receiving a written request.” If the inspection is not permitted within three business days of the request, the records custodian is required to explain in writing when the records will be available for inspection or when the public body will respond to the request.
Eight state agencies or boards and six counties failed to respond at all to the IPRAs even when follow-up emails were sent. However, after the results of the audit were made public, three additional state agencies responded to the IPRA.
“Because we did not want to influence the results, FOG asked a citizen to file the IPRA requests to better gauge responsiveness, attitudes and practices in regard to public records requests,” said Susan Boe, executive director of NMFOG.
“We discovered a few practices that were troubling,” noted Boe. “Most notably was the failure of some public entities to respond at all. Also, some responses were sent by certified mail; one CD was misplaced for more than a month at the post office. In another case, the requester had to pick up a certified letter which only disclosed that the county had no records.”
“A handful of public bodies would not deliver any documents until the request was resubmitted on the county or state’s ‘official’ IPRA forms even though the statute does not prescribe a format for requests,” Boe added.
With only a few exceptions, the public bodies responded electronically, which was the format used by the requester. Three public bodies imposed charges for the electronic documents, which together totaled $16, the entire cost of the NMFOG audit.
Many records custodians, though not required to do so, hand counted their IPRA files for the requester. In a few cases, the requester had to review the IPRA files at the office of the public records custodian.
“The majority of state and county records custodians were helpful and courteous,” Boe added.
Thirteen of the counties reported that they do not keep track of IPRA requests, while 23 of the state agencies or departments did not maintain an IPRA log, including the Office of the Governor and the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.
Findings from IPRA logs
Of the state boards and agencies that tracked requests, 8,654 IPRAs were filed in 2014, which increased to 10,121 in 2015. Almost half of those IPRA requests were filed with the Departments of Public Safety and the Environment Department.
Counties which tracked IPRAs racked up 3,682 and 4,692 requests in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Bernalillo County accounted for up to 60 percent of the inquiries in each of those years.
The largest single profession filing IPRA requests were attorneys, followed by businesses. Members of the press, private investigators and individual citizens constituted the remainder of IPRA filers.
In most cases, the logs reflected that most IPRA requests were specific and narrow. However, four or five requesters filed repeated IPRA requests, which could be considered “broad and burdensome” under the IPRA statute.
This is the first IPRA audit conducted by NMFOG in the last four years.
The majority of New Mexico agencies and boards responded to NMFOG’s IPRA requests within the 15-day maximum timeframe under the statute. Seven public bodies took longer than 15 days, including one records custodian who had to track 29 agencies. Some of the slow responders requested additional time as permitted under the statute for broad and burdensome requests.
“FOG believes our request was narrow and if a public body had tracking logs, they should have been readily available,” Boe said. “For example, one state agency, which had a large volume of IPRA requests, provided its log on the same day as our request.”
Compared to counties, state agencies and boards were more likely to track the number of hours personnel spent responding to particular requests. Some agency logs also tallied the number of pages produced from each request.
Copies of contracts, bids, salaries, personnel files, incident and accident reports, claims, insurance forms, traffic plans, personnel files and policies were most frequently requested.
“NMFOG has long noted the importance of easy access to public records to the business community,” said Gregory P. Williams, president of the NMFOG board of directors. “Our audit illustrates that access to public information is vital to private enterprise,” Williams noted.
Not surprisingly, the large metropolitan areas in the state received the most IPRA requests and also had the most detailed tracking logs.
Bernalillo County had 2,000 to 2,700 IPRA requests annually. Dona Ana County had an annual rate ranging from 485 to 560 requests while Taos County averaged 300 IPRAs annually. However, the third most populous county, Santa Fe County, had only 234 to 244 requests per year. (Last summer, Santa Fe County received the highest score on NMFOG’s audit of county websites, which may illustrate the link between a decrease in IPRA requests when public information is readily available on the public body’s website.)
Law firms were clearly the dominant requester of county information with newspapers comprising less than a fourth of IPRA requests. Unions and environmental businesses also constituted a significant number of entities or groups requesting public documents from counties.
Typical inquiries to counties included arrest records, permits and site plans, personnel records, environmental records and salary information about public employees.
All but two counties delivered the information at no cost to the requester. One county charged two dollars before the documents were delivered and in another instance a charge of eight dollars was imposed before the documents were delivered.
All of the counties that did respond to the IPRA requests answered within the 15-day legal window.