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SANTA FE — What a great example of governmental efficiency and transparency. With a mere telephone request, Gov. Susana Martinez’s chief political advisor was able to get a list of all nonunion teachers in the state along with their school email addresses.
It required considerable work by at least two divisions of the Public Education Department. It was done so fast and efficiently that the PED information officer proudly attached an email message that went to his boss, the governor, her chief of staff and, of course, her chief political advisor.
Not only did everyone in that loop have reason for pride, all we ink-stained wretches now have reason for hope that our requests for public records can be acted upon as quickly. It is not what we are accustomed to from any administration that I can recall.
First, we are reminded that requests cannot be made verbally. They must be in writing. In the early days of email, that medium was not acceptable. Sometimes a prompt reply is received but usually an extension of time is requested, often by an attorney.
Much of the time the answer is that the record does not exist. Often that means that the data exists to answer the question but it has never been compiled in the form requested and the agency is not required to do that work for you.
In this case, we see that significant information was quickly and proudly done. There is a rather good possibility that a significant increase of public records inspection requests will now begin occurring.
Some records requests become real nightmares. A request for information about DNA testing in a case involving Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office has drug out some eight years. Word is that the plaintiff’s costs for that are nearing $1 million. The county and state must pay those legal expenses if a judge decides the records must be turned over.
Over 20 years ago, I made a Freedom of Information Act request of the U.S. Treasury Department for records concerning approximately 100 tons of gold allegedly removed by the Treasury Department from Victorio Peak on White Sands Missile Range. I received a reply that no such records existed.
A few years ago, I received a phone call from a Treasury official about to retire. He was going through old records when he found my letter — in a file marked “Victorio Peak” He said evidently someone did know the file existed when I was sent a reply saying the Treasury Department had nothing.
He sent me the file, with no charges for copying. It contained, among other items, a big map of the Victorio Peak area indicating tunnels connecting the peak with nearby hills. Nothing else was of much interest so I have remained suspicious that I wasn’t sent everything. But that’s the way these fishing expeditions go.
But now we have new hope. Gov. Martinez ran for office promising she wouldn’t be like Bill Richardson. She would be a transparent governor.
Martinez may be a little too transparent, however. She let emails get into someone’s hands that indicate state resources were used illegally for political purposes and that she was very much in the loop. Another surprising occurrence was that the state officials involved mostly had SusanaPAC email addresses.
But then maybe everyone is barking up the wrong tree. The governor could have just asked for the records herself. She’s the boss. Those employees work for her. She then could have given them to her political advisor, who also works for her privately. The actions still would have been questionable because she would have been using state resources for political purposes.
Another questionable action involved the records request being handled only by political appointees. Records requests are supposed to be made to the department’s records custodian who is a professional educator, not the appointed public relations spokesman.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.