Herrera’s office is playing fast and loose with public records
The question is why: Is the secretary of state’s skirting of the law a sign of incompetence or something more nefarious?
Now we learn that Secretary of State Mary Herrera’s office thinks it has a right to conceal from the public an e-mail from a county official requesting additional voter registration forms and another from a nonprofit inquiring about a possible endorsement of a piece of legislation.
This appears to be either a flagrant disregard for the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act or a sign of incompetence. Such e-mails are, without question, public records.
I’m talking about the more than 400 pages of e-mails the Secretary of State’s Office released last week that were full of redactions. KOB-TV in Albuquerque and The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Tuesday that at least some of the information that was redacted appears to be, in the words of The New Mexican, “innocuous.”
One of the e-mails that was almost entirely redacted before being provided to the news outlets turned out to be an e-mail exchange in which the Santa Fe County elections director requested more Spanish-language voter registration forms from Herrera’s office.
Another e-mail exchange mentioned by the newspaper involved a discussion about a bill introduced in the regular legislative session earlier this year. In the e-mail exchange, the director of Think New Mexico informed then-Elections Director A.J. Salazar that a committee had approved the bill. He also asked about a possible endorsement of the legislation by Herrera.
Also blacked out, according to The New Mexican, was an e-mail a Think New Mexico staffer sent later in the day to Salazar. The e-mail simply stated that the bill in question was attached.
None of that information is exempt from release under the public records act, which provides very few reasons that information can be redacted from government documents before they’re released to the public. Those reasons include “matters of opinion” in personnel files, but there is no exemption, for example, for a county’s request for more voter registration forms.
Put simply: It appears to me that the redactions highlighted by The New Mexican and KOB violate the public records act.
Confusion or smoke and mirrors?
KOB’s Gadi Schwartz reported that the Secretary of State’s Office said it redacted what the Attorney General’s Office specifically told it to black out. But the AG’s Office told Schwartz that’s “absolutely untrue.”
The New Mexican’s Steve Terrell reported that Deputy Secretary of State Francisco Trujillo told him the redactions were made on advice from state risk management attorneys.
“Asked Monday who made the decision regarding each of the e-mails and what exception to the Inspection of Public Records Act he was citing, Trujillo said, ‘I’ll work on that request,’” Terrell wrote.
Is this confusion or smoke and mirrors? It seems to me there’s either a lack of competence and understanding of very simple truths about the public records act, or there’s something more nefarious going on.
Consider the other public-information controversy Herrera’s office has been in recently:
Trujillo initially denied requests from me and others for a copy Salazar’s resignation letter – a letter that was damaging to Herrera because it made a number of allegations of violations of state law and unethical behavior.
After the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said the letter was a public record – and the Rio Grande Sun released an un-redacted version of it – the office shifted gears and released a redacted version.
Let’s hope this is incompetence
The bottom line: Herrera’s office violated the public records act when it initially refused to release Salazar’s resignation letter. It apparently violated the public records act again with at least some of the redactions in the most recent release of e-mails.
It’s not unreasonable to suspect, because of the initial refusal to release Salazar’s resignation letter, that Herrera and her office have been making decisions about what information to release based on what’s good for her re-election chances.
But I fail to see how e-mails about legislation being pushed by Think New Mexico would damage Herrera’s political career. The seeming randomness of some redactions in the latest e-mail release could point to incompetence.
Making decisions about whether to release public records based on political considerations would be a gross violation of the law and Herrera’s oath of office. Let’s hope this isn’t a matter of putting politics above the law, but is instead a problem of incompetence.
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