KOAT Channel 7 recently did an excellent story about the propensity of cities throughout New Mexico to make big payouts to citizens who have been denied access to basic public records. The Rio Grande Foundation has won multiple lawsuits including one against the City of Albuquerque but we are not alone. The City of Albuquerque’s taxpayers have paid out more than $330,000 over the Keller Administration’s repeated denial of public records.
The Rio Grande Foundation uses its “Freedom Index” vote tracking site to hold New Mexico legislators accountable for their stances on individual freedom and personal liberty. We have rated all bills that impact individual freedom that received floor votes for the 2022 session and thus the current Index results are “final.”
Every bill receiving a score is rated on a scale from -8 through +8 depending on its overall impact on YOUR personal freedom. In the 2022 session the most impactful vote (-8) was on SB 14, the Clean Fuel Standard. A full analysis of that bill can be found here.
Rep. Stefani Lord (R) who represents parts of the East Mountains of Albuquerque scored a 45 which was the highest rating of the session.
Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R) who represents Lea County scored a 43 which was good for the 2nd-highest rating of the session.
Sen. Craig Brandt (R) who represents Rio Rancho scored 33 which was the highest rating for any senator (the Senate and House vote on different bills and the House typically takes more votes and thus has higher and lower scores).
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez (D) who represents parts of Albuquerque scored -66 which was the lowest rating for any member of the Legislature.
(Albuquerque, NM) – The Rio Grande Foundation has filed a complaint with New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) alleging that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has failed to disclose records relating to the governor’s attendance at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
In their official capacity, Governor Lujan Grisham and members of her administration attended the conference as representatives of New Mexico. The expenses incurred for travel, food, and lodging are subject to inspection by the public, whether the expenses were paid for with taxpayer funds or otherwise. If special interests funded this excursion, the public has a right to know.
The Foundation submitted a request for records on November 1, 2021 asking for all documents related to these costs. On November 16, 2021, the request was improperly denied. The request to inspect records was expanded and a revised request was submitted on November 18, 2021 and was wrongfully denied on November 23, 2021.
According to the Inspection of Public Records Act, “public records” means all documents, papers, letters, books, maps, tapes, photographs, recordings and other materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that are used, created, received, maintained or held by or on behalf of any public body and relate to public business, whether or not the records are required by law to be created or maintained.
Patrick Brenner, Vice President of the Rio Grande Foundation, said “We requested all receipts and documents associated with the administration’s attendance at this international conference. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has acknowledged that her attendance was in her official capacity as a representative of New Mexico. As such, the records related to transportation are subject to inspection, especially if they were paid for by a special interest or foreign entity. No disclosure of any in-kind contribution can be found in the latest campaign finance report. The administration’s continued devotion to anti-transparency is deeply disturbing and undermines the public trust.”
The Foundation maintains that the Office of the Governor has improperly and wrongly withheld documents that ought to have been made available for inspection by the public. We look forward to a swift response from the Attorney General.
The original complaint can be examined here: https://riograndefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Combine-December-9-2021.pdf
This press release is available in PDF format here: https://riograndefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Press-Release-Attorney-General-Complaint_-Gov-MLG-Travel.pdf
The following opinion piece appeared in the Las Cruces Sun News on Sunday, October 24, 2021.
Kurt Steinhaus has been on the job for just a month or so, but he has already put forth policies and ideas regarding New Mexico’s education system that leave us scratching our heads.
We all want our children to do better in school so that they are prepared to be productive workers and informed citizens. That is not an easy task and it is made even more difficult by the pandemic and the government’s reaction to it.
The first question is why PED has chosen not to release standardized testing data that it has from March of 2020 prior to the pandemic. Yes, only 10% of students took the test, but there is still useful information to be gleaned from the 10% that took it. That’s especially true since there will be no data available at all for 2021. We know New Mexico students began the pandemic behind their peers in other states, but New Mexico families and our education leaders deserve to have at least some insights into where things stood right before the pandemic.
More bizarre are comments Steinhaus made in early October at a Legislative Education Study Committee. When asked what New Mexico would need to do to “make New Mexico teacher salaries competitive” he claimed the state would “have to double teacher salaries.”
That is quite simply false. According to the latest data from the National Education Association, New Mexico’s average teacher pay is $54,256 annually (ranked 32nd in the nation). The highest paid teachers on average are found in New York where they make $87,069. Doubling New Mexico teacher salaries would not “make them competitive.” It would make them by far the highest paid in the nation (at nearly $110,000) in a state that has much lower taxes and living costs than does New York and others with high salaries.
Setting aside whether increasing teacher pay is warranted or effective at increasing student performance, there is simply no data backing up the idea that New Mexico should double teacher pay. Perhaps Steinhaus is not familiar with what New Mexico teachers make or past efforts to recruit and offer enhanced pay to high performing teachers.
And then there are the state’s revised social studies standards which clearly were “in progress” during (prior Secretary) Ryan Stewart’s time at PED but were recently released under Steinhaus. Whether you can call the new, much more prescriptive standards “critical race theory” or not is open to question, but there are concerning elements to be found in the new standards.
Throughout the new curriculum there is a focus not simply on geography, human development and historical facts and events and their relevance for us today. If adopted, the curriculum will intently focus on differences, rather than the similarities among various racial and ethnic groups. Talk of inequity (unequal outcome for different groups) will replace equality under the law. The general trend in the new standards is away from presenting the facts and asking students to come to their own conclusions to instead hammering approved beliefs on everything from gun control and “destruction and occupation” of the Americas by the Spaniards into students.
There is currently a public comment period on these standards going on through Nov. 12. Please look at them and submit your own comments today.
Secretary Steinhaus does not have an easy job and we understand that. But, our schools need a focused, data-driven approach to improve student outcomes. If paying teachers more will improve outcomes, let’s see the data. And rather than teaching watered-down CRT, let’s focus on teaching basic historical events and not spinning them to make America look like a hive of inequality and injustice.
Paul J. Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.
As discussed in a recent blog post here there is an Albuquerque Public Schools property tax issue on voters’ ballots this November. As seen below the ballot language certainly seems to indicate a property tax increase, but in this story for which RGF talked to KOAT Channel 7, APS claims it is NOT a tax hike.
We looked extensively on the APS website and found nothing, nor does the full ballot text on our sample ballot (find yours here) have any clues.
Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton is in hot water and resigned over serious allegations of money laundering. Over a decade ago the Rio Grande Foundation questioned the practice of naming public facilities after elected officials. KOB TV interviewed RGF president Paul Gessing about the issue. Watch the full story here:
For Immediate Release: July 19, 2021
For further information, contact: Patrick Brenner (505) 377-6273
After eighteen months of litigation and negotiation, the Rio Grande Foundation is pleased to announce the settlement of the lawsuit related to the City of Albuquerque’s lack of transparency and openness. The actions of Mayor Tim Keller’s administration and City Clerk Ethan Watson have proven to be antithetical to the principles of open government.
The voters of Albuquerque defeated Democracy Dollars in November of 2019, and the Rio Grande Foundation’s exposure of numerous flaws in the proposal played a pivotal role in the downfall of the ballot measure. Furthermore, the Foundation filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Tim Keller for his use of the City’s website (CABQ.gov) in which he specifically called for voters to approve Democracy Dollars. Mayor Keller’s actions were found to be in violation of city ordinance by the Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices.
Following the ethics complaint, the Rio Grande Foundation requested a reasonable collection of text messages and emails sent to and from specific city employees leading up to the posting of Mayor Keller’s pleas on the city’s website to vote “YES”.
The public records request was filed under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act and was accepted by the City in December of 2019. After dutifully paying the invoice to receive these records, the City of Albuquerque failed to provide all responsive records for over ten months. Patrick Brenner, the Foundation’s policy analyst, filed the original request.
On May 12, 2020, after exhausting all other avenues to obtain these public records, which included assistance from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government when Director Melanie Majors sent a letter of complaint to no avail, the Rio Grande Foundation filed a legal complaint in District Court against the city.
Repeated requests from the Foundation to confirm that these records were not being deleted had been continually ignored by Ethan Watson, City Clerk, and the Custodian of Records, Yvette Gurule.
During mediation, the Foundation also tried to address the city’s responsiveness to open government requests. After being presented with specific policy recommendations, the city refused to improve the process, leaving in place the glaring problems that resulted in the months-long delays. Rather, the city offered a sizable settlement that the Rio Grande Foundation will use to further its open government advocacy and transparency efforts.
In the interest of transparency, the Rio Grande Foundation is making the settlement agreement available here.
This article appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on June 27, 2021. With COVID and the Gov.’s COVID policies at last receding, the race is on to determine how effective or ineffective our Gov.’s lockdown policies really were. Our analysis is below:
Anthony Fauci’s emails have been released, and they tell an interesting tale about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. One particular email stood out to me from Fauci to Sylvia Burwell discussing masks.
Within the body of the email, Fauci asserts that the use of masks in a public setting is generally to prevent infected individuals from spreading a virus. More specifically, he writes that the “typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material.” This email was sent on February 5, 2020.
If the drug-store masks are ineffective, why were they forced on the general population for over a year? Did masks help contain the spread of COVID-19 at all? What else do we not know?
But I’m not here to argue about the efficacy of masks and Fauci’s handling of the pandemic. I’m here to emphasize the importance of why we are able to have this discussion today: open government and transparency.
Without access to these documents, the country might not have ever known to ask these questions. This is significant as we can analyze the events in early 2020 in a new light. Most importantly, we can hold individuals accountable if they recommended policies that were known not to be effective.
Here in New Mexico, we have a different ongoing dilemma, one that is also rooted in transparency. Thanks to the initial efforts of Searchlight New Mexico, the additional whistleblowers that have come forward since the initial Searchlight report, and some well-timed public records requests submitted by yours truly, we know that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and her administration are still actively depriving the people of New Mexico access to public documents through permanent and automatic deletion.
In January of this year, a directive from the governor’s office was implemented by the New Mexico Department of Information Technology: delete all messages after 24 hours. This directive came before the governor’s press secretary acknowledged the use of a creative new term: “transitory.”
The deleted messages were broadly considered “transitory” in nature, a definition that has already been debunked in the context of transparency and is not a qualified exception under the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), New Mexico’s government transparency law.
“Transitory” messages have been unofficially described as “employee banter, routine check-ins between workers and other insignificant exchanges.” The rub is that they’re all public documents and subject to inspection requests, regardless of whatever “transitory” qualification they try to apply.
Fauci could have used the same term to describe his seemingly innocuous email to Burwell about masks. What if Fauci had deleted that email because it was “just transitory”?
All this and the responses from Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office that there are “no records responsive to your request” underlines a seriously dangerous trend and contemptuous attitude within the Governor’s administration. The widespread and systematic “paper shredder” policy is nothing short of criminal.
New Mexico’s Attorney General agrees: “public bodies acquiring information should keep in mind that the records they keep generally are subject to public inspection.”
The governor’s press secretary Nora Sackett said that the governor takes transparency and open government “very seriously.” If that’s true, then Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and all New Mexico state agencies should shed their cloaks of secrecy and immediately stop the destruction of public documents.
This is a clear assault on the people’s ability to keep a watchful eye on their elected government and should be alarming to everyone, especially those who care for our democracy.
And remember, democracy dies in darkness.
As the far-left solidifies its stranglehold on all branches of New Mexico’s state government, more than ever we need an aggressive media and informed constituency to demand accountability in a system proven to produce abuses without. These abuses have never been more readily apparent than in the aftermath of a recent Searchlight New Mexico investigation.
In May 2021, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department fired two high-level employees. Their terminations came after the two employees raised concerns about the agency’s recent shift to the use of encryption and the automated destruction of public records.
The department recently transitioned to the secure text messaging app Signal to discuss a wide range of official business, including the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the care of children in state custody. Officials asserted that they relied on Signal primarily for “transitory communications”. But what is “transitory” in the context of the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), the state’s public records law?
CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock defines transitory communications as “employee banter, routine check-ins between workers and other insignificant exchanges not subject to public records laws”.
However, the New Mexico Attorney General’s IPRA guide addresses exceptions generally: “Because of the presumption in favor of the right to inspect, public bodies acquiring information should keep in mind that the records they keep generally are subject to public inspection.”
Wait: I’m confused. IPRA itself makes no explicit mention of the term “transitory”. In fact, IPRA only mentions a few and very specific exceptions under select qualified circumstances where a record is not to be disclosed. These exceptions include matters that fall under attorney-client privilege, certain personnel records, health records, and “protected personal identifier information” such as social security numbers and birth dates, as well as a few others.
These are reasonable exemptions to protect certain information of citizens. What does this mean? It means that no government agency will turn over your social security number to a requester. If a record contains a social security number, the number is redacted. This protects the privacy of citizens.
And protecting the privacy of citizens in this way is a good thing. One of the greatest freedoms we have is the freedom from interference or intrusion, the right “to be let alone,” a formulation cited by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren in 1890. Remember: transparency is for the government, privacy is for the citizens.
But CYFD employees are employed by a government agency. Do they have a right to privacy? In the conduct of their job, the law says no.
Obtaining public records from government agencies can be a difficult task. Sometimes the custodians are great people, they do their jobs well, and they make the request process easy. But other agencies put up roadblocks where litigation often becomes an unavoidable outcome
If it was already difficult to obtain certain records, what happens if the agency moves to a platform where text messages are encrypted and automatically deleted? That task is now impossible.
According to the law, these text messages constitute public records, regardless of how “transitory” they are in nature.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s IPRA guide offers insight to contradict the “transitory” qualification: “‘public records’ means all documents, […] regardless of physical form or characteristics, that are used, created, received, maintained or held by or on behalf of any public body and relate to public business, whether or not the records are required by law to be created or maintained”.
With CYFD setting a dangerous precedent, the governor’s office offered similar advice. “Every single text message that you send or receive likely qualifies as a ‘transitory record,’” the official guidance counsels. “We recommend that you delete all text messages which are ‘transitory records’ every ten days. You may delete them more often if you wish.”
This reminds me of George Orwell’s memory holes from his groundbreaking novel 1984:
“When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”
Well, it’s 2021 and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the obligation to provide these records to requesters has not been absolved. Denying access to records, defaming those who stand up, and delaying a solution to the problem undermines the already troubled credibility of government institutions and their leaders.
Let us conclude with the most important question of all: why would records need to be destroyed if there wasn’t something to hide?
Patrick Brenner is the Vice President of the Rio Grande Foundation, New Mexico’s free-market research institute and think tank. He leads the Foundation’s open government and second amendment efforts.