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. Most recently, the agency refused to release an unlocked version of a spreadsheet to a citizen … and it took a US senator reading my story to get the citizen the records.
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.
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.