Categories
Notable News Open Government Top Issues

Rio Grande Foundation Settles Public Records Lawsuit Against City of Albuquerque

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.

Categories
Economy Health Care Legislature Notable News Open Government Top Issues

Las Cruces Sun-News column: New Mexico’s COVID-19 response failed on important metrics

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:

Categories
Notable News Open Government Top Issues

Thankfully, Anthony Fauci didn’t delete his emails like Gov. Lujan Grisham

This article first appeared in The Center Square on June 4th, 2021.

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.

Categories
Notable News Open Government Tipping Point Top Issues

CYFD’s “transitory” copout: the latest attempt to deny, defame, and delay

This article first appeared in The Center Square on May 24th, 2021.

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.

Categories
Constitution and Criminal Justice Economy Notable News Open Government Top Issues Videos

Media uses RGF information to ask MLG health advisor tough questions on “the science”

The Rio Grande Foundation recently gained access to the transcript of a deposition on the Gov.’s decision making process relating to COVID 19 and found “the science” to be lacking. Channel 4 KOB TV’s Patrick Hayes used this information to ask the Gov.’s health advisor David Scrase some questions during the press conference this week. As you can see from the story, Scrase doesn’t exactly answer the question about “the science.”

You can see the full story below:

Categories
Economy Education Health Care Notable News Open Government Top Issues

Is New Mexico REALLY “Following the Science” on COVID?

Recently (on February 29, 2021), Tracie Collins, M.D., New Mexico Secretary of Health was deposed in a case in US brought by various businesses that have opposed the Gov.’s lockdown policies relating to COVID 19.

The Deposition was videotaped, so we can provide broadcast news outlets (or even just YouTube and similar platforms) with clips. Here is the full transcript of Collins’ deposition.

Key Take-aways:

  1. The Department of Health does not consider the economic impact of lockdowns in crafting its Public Health Orders.
  2. The Department of Health does not adjust “positive COVID test” results to account for false positive tests.
  3. The Department of Health cannot explain why Florida and Texas, which are not locked down, have lower COVID fatality rates than New Mexico. The experiences of other states are not considered by the Secretary or the New Mexico Department of Health in crafting the Public Health Orders.
  4. The Department of Health does not take into consideration other adverse health impacts, like increased depression, suicide, and childhood obesity in crafting the Public Health Orders.
  5. The Secretary places significant reliance on the Department of Health’s legal staff when crafting the Public Health Orders. She does not know if any of the Department’s lawyers have any training or education in public health.
  6. The Secretary is unaware of any scientific studies that support the specific restrictions, prohibitions, and permitted activities under the Public Health Orders.
  7. The Secretary cannot say whether the risk from COVID must be zero, before the Public Health Orders will end.

Below are Page and Line references to deposition testimony:

Data and Experience from other States “can” be considered in crafting New Mexico’s Public Health Orders, but Secretary Collins will not say that it “should” be considered.  See, page 11, line 2 to line 14 (“11:2 – 14”)

The Department of Health has minimized economic harm from the shutdowns by reducing morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 and keeping people alive so that they will have an opportunity at some time in the future to reopen their business.  See page 32, line 24 to page 34, line 5 (“32:24 – 34:5”)

The Department does not track or control for false positive tests, or make adjustments to their numbers based on the presence of false positive tests.  34:11 – 37:17; and 37:21 – 41:11

The Secretary cannot explain why Florida and South Dakota, which are not locked down, have a lower COVID-related fatality rate than New Mexico.  Nor is she interested in using such data to determine whether lockdowns work.  48:3 – 53:19

The Secretary does not know why New Mexico has not done a regression analysis to determine whether the shutdown orders have had a positive impact on COVID transmission rates.  54:2 – 56:2

The Secretary is not aware of New Mexico attempting any other analysis of the adverse economic impact of the shutdown orders.  She does not know if the State has done anything to consider the economic cost and damage caused by the shutdown orders.  She does not know if the economic costs and damages arising from the shutdown orders is significant.  57:15 – 58:22; and 100:15 – 20

The Secretary does not know what adverse health consequences have arisen as a result of having to close business and losing jobs.  The Secretary has done no study regarding the adverse health consequences caused by lockdowns (increased depression, suicide, childhood obestity, etc.).   58:23 – 63:3

The Secretary is not aware of any studies that the business activities that are permitted under the Public Health Orders are less risky than the business activities that have been prohibited.  63:4 – 64:7

The Secretary would have to confer with the Department’s general counsel (i.e., its lawyers) to understand why certain businesses, like TopGolf and New Mexico United are allowed to operate, and others are not.  64:8 – 66:13

The Public Health Orders do not consider the potential harm or damage to the businesses that are being closed.  The Secretary does not know who, if anyone, in State government is supposed to look at the cost and damage to the businesses and people subject to the Public Health Orders.  67:10 – 69:1

The fatality rate from COVID for children ages 5 to 14 is 0.001%, or 1 out of every 100,000 children who contract the virus.  For children age 19 and under, the fatality rate is 0.003% or 3 out of every 100,000 children who contract the virus.  This is lower than the fatality rates for other infectious diseases.  69:4 – 70:4.

New Mexico has not studied the effect of the pandemic on childhood obesity.  72:20 – 74:13

The Secretary is unaware of any studies by the Department of Health of the impact of play deprivation on children resulting from the lockdowns and public health orders.  80:11 – 82:4

The Secretary cannot say whether the Public Health Orders will continue until the risk of COVID is zero.  82:5 – 83:5

In general, other factors such as adverse health consequences to children and adults and adverse economic impacts on businesses and employees are not taken into consideration by the Department or the Secretary when it comes to the contents of the Public Health Orders.  84:5 – 85:8.

Decisions about which businesses are in what category in the Public Health Orders is determined by the legal department working with the Secretary.  The Secretary does not know if there is a “written trail” for the decision as to which type of businesses will go in which category; nor does she know if any of the lawyers in her department have any education in public health.  89:1 – 18

The Secretary is unaware of any analysis or studies that were performed before gyms, group fitness classes, skating rinks, bowling alleys, and personal trainers were taken off the “prohibited from opening list” in the Public Health Order, to the permitted to open under limited capacity list.  93:23 – 94:14

The Secretary would have to confer with the Department’s lawyers before she could say how an industry or particular business activity can have its category or definition changed and be allowed to open.  94:15 – 95:7.

The Secretary would have to confer with the Department’s lawyers to understand why some business that cannot practice social distancing, like massage parlors, barbershops and nail salons are open, while other businesses, like trampoline parks and other “close-contact recreational facilities” where the Department is concerned about social distancing, are closed.  100:21 -101:23.

Categories
Local Government Notable News Open Government Tax and Budget Top Issues

RGF requests and publishes public payrolls: Part 1: New Mexico Cities

New Mexico cities big and small are required to provide various public records. Unfortunately the process of requesting many of those records is onerous. That’s where the Rio Grande Foundation comes in.

We have requested, received, and published public payroll records for most of New Mexico’s major cities. You can find that information here.

To their credit, a few (typically larger) cities publish their payroll records online. You can find Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Los Alamos, Rio Rancho, and Santa Fe.

Categories
Economy Education Energy and Environment Health Care Legislature Notable News Oil & Gas Open Government Tax and Budget Taxes Top Issues

New Mexico session another missed opportunity

The following appeared in the Las Cruces Sun News on Sunday, March 28, 2021. UPDATE: Originally the article stated there was a production moratorium on federal lands. There is “only” a moratorium on new permits.

New Mexico is in one of the most unusual economic times in its history. Profound forces have impacted our State over the last year in unforeseen ways.

    • The Gov. and COVID shut down much of our State for much of the past year. COVID is declining, but New Mexico remains among the most locked-down states in the nation;
    • Oil and gas prices plummeted last April due to the pandemic and an international price war, but have come roaring back and produced $300 million in “new” money and a budget surplus;
    • Democrats in Washington recently passed a $1.9 trillion dollar “stimulus” that will dump an astounding $9 billion on New Mexico State and local governments. Meanwhile the Administration’s moratorium on oil and gas permits on federal lands will cost our State more than $700 million over the next few years according to Gov. Lujan Grisham;
    • While New Mexico governments are awash in money, businesses are struggling to recover. The State’s unemployment rate is 8.7 percent, 4th-worst in the nation.

To say we are living through unpredictable times would be an understatement. Oil and gas have always been volatile but are now more unpredictable than ever. This reflects broader economic uncertainty, but with the Biden Administration targeting the Industry, the Legislature must diversify our economy (this does not mean simply new sources of government revenue).

The unprecedented stream of federal spending flowing into our state is currently augmented by a flow of people. Housing markets are tight in most of our cities as Americans from big, expensive, states like California embrace remote work or simply move to states like New Mexico where they can spread out and buy a house for a lot less money.

Current trends are favorable, but long-term economic prosperity requires enacting policies that make the State more attractive as a business destination. The 2021 Legislature had a few successes but ultimately failed to enact policies that will bring long-term prosperity to New Mexico.

Despite a big budget surplus, the Legislature raised taxes on health insurance (SB 317). They imposed a new sick leave mandate on businesses, including small ones (HB 20). And, passage of HB 4, the misnamed “Civil Rights Act” will impose massive new legal costs on New Mexico governments without actually improving policing or protecting civil rights.

There were bright spots. HB 255 reformed New Mexico’s liquor licensing to make it easier for bars and restaurants long-term. HB 177 passed which allows New Mexicans to start micro-businesses by making non-perishable food items in their homes for sale.

But the gross receipts tax and its taxation of busines inputs and services remains a stumbling block for businesses. New Mexico also remains among a relatively small group of states that tax Social Security. No significant tax cuts or reforms were adopted. Also, no widespread reform of burdensome regulations (like the State’s “prevailing wage” law that artificially increases costs on public works) projects was enacted.

Some will argue that (after a decade of trying) tapping the Permanent fund to boost various education programs will help improve our workforce, but the track record of governments (including New Mexico’s) spending more money to boost education outcomes is spotty at best. Empowering parents and families with the resources needed to choose the educational option that is right for them (especially after a year of Zoom education), is more likely to succeed and at a fraction of the cost, but legislation to that effect was quickly defeated this session.

Microchip manufacturer Intel just announced that it is investing $20 billion in neighboring Arizona to build two new facilities. Such “economic diversification” is exactly what we need and what the Gov. and Legislature claim to want. Until the Legislature gets serious about reforming our economy we’ll continue riding the wave of luck, boom and bust in the oil patch, and Washington debt.

Paul 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

 

Categories
Economy Notable News Open Government Top Issues

New Mexico REMAINS among most locked down states in US (44th most open) despite recent reopenings according to Wallethub

The latest Wallethub report (out today) ranks states based on Coronavirus restrictions. New Mexico remains relatively shuttered (44th most open). Worse than that, as can be seen below, New Mexico is in the unenviable position of having MANY COVID restrictions AND a high death rate. 

Furthermore (according to the bottom chart), New Mexico also has a high unemployment rate which, not surprisingly accompanies those economic restrictions.

Categories
Education Legislature Notable News Open Government Top Issues

Independent analysis: New Mexico K-12 school opening rate among slowest in US

As if New Mexico students didn’t already face serious challenges, see this quote from the New York Times (which, to their credit has been pushing for schools to reopen). 

Unfortunately, you can’t embed the map here, but as of Feb. 22, New  Mexico schools are among the least reopened in the entire nation, a situation that is problematic for our State and its future. According to the Burbio data:

New Mexico schools are 21.3% open;
Arizona is 68.6%;
Utah is 90.2%;
Colorado is 77.1%;
Oklahoma is 67.5%;
Texas is 90.8%.

Whether these states spend more or less than New Mexico on K-12 and whether or not they have expensive pre-K programs, every other state in the region is blowing the doors off New Mexico. Of course, our State’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, has already punted on the entire 2020-2021 school year.