The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) has chosen six New Mexicans as the recipients of its 2020 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Awards. The awards are annually presented to those New Mexicans who believe in government transparency at the state or local level – and who have made significant contributions to casting sunshine (transparency) in government operations in the state.
Dixon Award winners will be honored with a virtual Dixon Award event set for Oct, 1, 2020.
“These New Mexicans believe that open government is good government and instead of giving lip service to transparency and accountability, they acted on their belief. Because of their actions, it makes it easier for everyone to be informed and participate in government,” Kathi Bearden, Dixon Selection chair, said.
The 2020 Dixon recipients are:
Citizen: Teri Garcia and Stefanie Mortensen
Gallup’s Teri Garcia and Stefanie Mortensen are the parents of children who attended a Gallup charter high school. The two requested records from the Gallup-McKinley County School District following policy changes concerning charter school students. They fought against the school district’s demand of payment of 50 cents per page for the 11,875 pages – more than $5,900 – before allowing the requesters to even inspect the documents. For more than a year, Gallup-McKinley County Schools officials erected numerous barriers to prevent the public and the media from inspecting GMCS documents. The parents filed a lawsuit in district court alleging the school district was illegally withholding public records. In late July 2019, the Gallup school district agreed to settle the lawsuit and agreed to pay Garcia and Mortensen $14,000 and provide them copies of documents the district repeatedly denied providing to the requesters.
Government: Rep. Jim Townsend and Ethan Watson
Two individuals will receive the Dixon Award in the government category in 2020.
State Representative District 54 and House Minority Leader Jim Townsend has been actively advocating for more transparency in government for the last six years. Specifically, he notified the public of the House Appropriations Committee cutting budget deals behind closed doors and worked to stop the “member add” system that allows select members to add public funds to the budget also behind closed doors. In 2020, he sponsored three House Rule changes to help the public better understand the process and to make it easier to access voting records. During the same session, he was successful in changing a rule requiring the council service to post committee tabling votes on the website. Making those votes public is an important way to hold legislators accountable to the public. He was a supporter of the establishment of the ethics commission and continues to question activity by those in power who fail to meet the standards of open government.
Ethan Watson is the City Clerk for the City of Albuquerque. He has prioritized open government and transparency through centralizing IPRA response in the clerk’s, citywide training on open government laws, prioritizing scanning and digitizing of records, and continually improving communication. The City now has a centralized program for responding to IPRA requests and prioritized scanning and digitizing of the most frequently requested documents and placing them on the website. In 2019 the City of Albuquerque received more than 8600 public records requests. Watson has encouraged the use of social media to promote facts and figures about the City’s responsiveness as well as to engage with users on historical records through photos of ordinances dating back to the late 1800s.
Law: Adam Flores
Adam Flores litigated and won in the New Mexico Supreme Court case Jones v. APD, et al., which substantially narrowed the way IPRA’s “law enforcement” exception is applied. This decision will make a significant difference to the public and to news media because law enforcement agencies can no longer withhold records merely on the ground that a matter is “under investigation.” The Court applied the language of IPRA to limit the exception to apply only to “confidential methods, sources or information” or the names of persons “accused, but not charged with a crime.” The Court also emphasized the obligation under IPRA to review the records, separate all information not protected, and produce records with any necessary redactions. Finally, the Court ruled that even though records were produced late in the litigation, the claim for attorneys’ fees and damages was not moot. The rulings on each of these points will greatly assist all persons requesting records under IPRA.
Media: Ryan Lowery
Ryan Lowery’s investigative work is extensive and often incorporates public documents, including an effort this year to use police records to outline how police failed to locate the body of a missing woman inside a home they’d visited and inspected several times for the Las Vegas Optic. After being told no three times, most journalists would have moved on to other reporting, but in 2019, he detailed how the Las Vegas Police Department repeatedly denied requests to disclose information related to several homicides in the city citing the information would compromise the investigations. The denial prompted the paper and Lowery to file two complaints with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office. The AG responded and his determination letter reads “We also conclude that the City violated IPRA by providing inadequate written explanations of its denials” and ordered the city to reevaluate its responses to Lowery’s records requests. His work highlights how the Las Vegas City Schools violated the state’s open records law by charging unlawful fees for access. When a volleyball coach was backed by the Attorney General, Lowery was there to shine a light on the topic, Lowery continued to cover how the school district’s attempts to go around the law were again called out by the AG.