ALBUQUERQUE — The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (NMFOG) today released the results of its audit to determine compliance by municipalities with public records requests.
The Inspection of Public Records Act requests (IPRAs) were sent by a third party to New Mexico’s 49 largest cities. The requester sought copies of any IPRA logs kept by the public body in 2014, 2015 and 2016. If the municipality did not track IPRA requests, the public body was asked to respond with that information.
Twenty of the cities, or almost 41 percent, delivered the documents on the same day the request was filed, while 40 of the 49 municipalities provided a response or the documents within the three business days mandate of IPRA. The remainder of the responses were sent four to 10 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.
All but one city, Anthony, eventually responded to the IPRA audit, though follow-up emails had to be sent to eight of the public bodies when no response was received within the three business days window. In two instances, the requester sent a second reminder to both the public records custodian and the town’s mayor. That action produced immediate responses.
In an audit by FOG of state agencies and counties earlier this year, nine state agencies or boards and six counties failed to respond at all to the IPRA requests when reminder emails were sent.
“Similar to our audit in March and April, FOG asked a citizen to file the IPRAs to better gauge responsiveness, attitudes and practices toward the public in regard to records requests,” said Susan Boe, executive director of NMFOG.
“The biggest surprise was the finding that 21 cities did not track IPRA requests with logs or spreadsheets,” noted Boe. “In the case of small communities, the records custodians explained that they received so few requests, there was no need for a log sheet. However, larger cities such as Carlsbad, Gallup, Roswell and Silver City also failed to centrally monitor public records requests.”
All of the public bodies responded electronically, which was the format used by the requester. One public body imposed a charge of $14 for the electronic documents.
Many records custodians, though not required to do so under IPRA law, volunteered to handcount their IPRA files for the requester.
Of the cities that tracked requests, 4,686 IPRAs were filed in 2014, which increased to 7,825 in 2015. A number of cities did not start tracking IPRAs until mid-2014 and 2015, which may account for part of the uptick. So far in 2016 municipal records custodians have responded to 5,621 IPRA requests. The cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Las Cruces, Farmington, Rio Rancho and Hobbs had most of the IPRA activity in the state.
Copies of contracts, bids, salaries, personnel files, incident and accident reports, permits and site plans, insurance forms, traffic plans, fire reports and campaign/voting information were most frequently requested. Compared to IPRAs filed with state agencies and counties, the municipal requests often focused on tax revenues, such as lodgers tax income, as well as costs, especially expenses associated with particular events and concerts.
Most of the requests were specific and narrow, such as ‘all email between Councilor Good and ABC Corporation for a certain time period.’ Some IPRAs were amusing, ‘Outcome of the incident for a dog named Rufus,’ while others were surprising, ‘The sign-in sheets for the city’s aquatic center.’
Generally, it was difficult to determine the status of the requesters, but similar to the FOG audit released in June, lawyers and journalists were frequent IPRA filers. Under the provisions of IPRA, a requester does not need to state, nor can the custodian ask, the purpose of the request. However, based upon the types of documents sought a review of the IPRA logs showed that economic or business questions motivated the majority of requests.
“Interest in public records was initially the exclusive domain of journalists and a handful of watchdog citizens,” said Greg Williams, NMFOG president and an Albuquerque attorney. “Today, though, the ability to quickly access public records is vital to the business community.”