The Society of Professional Journalists chose the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission for the 2016 Black Hole Award. The award draws attention to “government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”
SPJ Rio Grande board president Laura Paskus nominated the ISC this year:
I’ve been a journalist for almost 15 years and have been covering this particular agency for that entire time. Over the past few years however, the agency has become increasingly secretive, in particular as the state has proposed building a controversial diversion on the Gila River, here in New Mexico.
The city of Santa Fe’s Public Records Custodian Bernadette Romero does a couple of things that make her stand out to SPJ Rio Grande. One, she’ll reach out to someone requesting a public record to help refine their request so they get what they’re looking for—and it’s not buried in pages and pages of unnecessary material. And two, she doesn’t automatically ask for time extensions. Romero tries to turn records around as quickly as possible.
Reporter Jeff Proctor spoke to Romero about what it’s like to be a custodian of public records and why she thinks it’s important to maintain a good relationship with “frequent flyers” like journalists.
It’s all part of our ongoing Sunshine Week 2017 content, which includes efforts to high-five the public servants who are doing open government right.
Earlier this year, I was trying to get a hold of some information — something really simple, the kind of thing that in the past would usually be handled over the course of a phone call or two.
I was trying to figure out why a local government official had been told by the state that the village’s grant had been cut.
I reached out to the state agency’s communications director, via text, voicemail and email. No one would respond, however. It wasn’t even a controversial story — the village ended up receiving the money they’d been counting on. I just wanted to know why the state had sent that letter and what might be going on with the budget or the grant funding.
Since I couldn’t get a response — even after emailing specific questions and actually getting the communications director on the telephone for a few minutes — I filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request. I asked for emails from a specific time period, with the name of the grant in them, from one bureau within the state agency. I noted in my letter that I would rescind the IPRA request if someone would just answer my questions about the grant funding.
The agency responded that the request was “excessively burdensome and broad” — because there were more than 500 responsive documents that needed to be collected and reviewed before being released. In my response to that letter, I noted that there wouldn’t be a need for the IPRA request and response if someone would answer my questions.
Now, after the agency has complied with my IPRA request–and spent staff time collecting and reviewing the documents–I’ve been able to review the emails. Amid the hundreds of messages, I finally found an email that explains exactly what happened and why. And as I guessed, it could have been explained to me in a short phone call.
It’s Sunshine Week, which is all about your right to know. We’ll be rolling out all kinds of content on this site and on social media. This “Gray Skies” series will look at instances when officials, agencies and public institutions not transparent and evaded the disinfecting power of sunlight.