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There’s No Escape

New Mexico water agency covered by SFR wins national ‘award’ for secrecy

March 16, 2017, 5:05 pm

Thanks to what a national journalism group calls “outright contempt of the publics right to know,” the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has a new distinction to hang on the wall at its Santa Fe office: the Black Hole Award.

Dont look for the agency to go shopping for a frame anytime soon.

Handed out annually by the Society of Professional Journalists, the award singles out the most secretive government agencies and elected officials and highlights the importance of access to public information.

In a series of stories in SFR and other publications, journalist Laura Paskus covered the ISCs plans to build a diversion along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. The commission has routinely stonewalled when shes asked for comment and for information to back up claims made by ISC employees in support of agency positions.

Paskus nominated the commission for the award.

“Ive had some issues with a number of state agencies in recent years, but the ISC has stood out in terms their reluctance not only to talk to me as a reporter and to comment on really important issues like US Supreme Court cases, but also their reluctance to release data,” Paskus tells SFR.

Here’s what’s at stake, according to Paskus’ reporting:

New Mexico is scheduled to receive about $100 million in federal subsidies to build the diversion. With no real plan yet in place, the agencies have already spent more than $10 million of that money. The final price for the diversion itself is expected to exceed more than $500 million.

The award is more than just an outlet for frustrated journalists to name drop recalcitrant public officials. It also spotlights agencies that cash in the trust earned by hardworking career public servants for political gain by elected officials and their appointees.

“The people of New Mexico dont have a good idea of the work that the agency does, which is really important, especially in an arid state … There are employees at the agency who do good, important work,” Paskus explains. “When the agencys political appointees and spokeswoman act in a way that isnt transparent, it degrades the work of the employees.”

Without having data that would let her double check the ISCs rhetoric, Paskus says its impossible to know if the agency is making accurate claims based on numbers it wont release—or if its making bogus claims that could be disproven if the ISC released the public information.

“Making these sorts of heavy decisions and citing data to back those decisions but refusing to produce this data is ridiculous,” said SPJs Freedom of Information Committee Chair Gideon Grudo says in a statement announcing the award.

Whats the takeaway of the ignominious distinction?

Paskus worries it won’t be much. She certainly doesnt expect a better relationship with the ISC after a public shaming. She also doesnt think a sarcastic-sounding award matters to an agency that seems habitually hunkered down.

She may be right: SFR contacted the commission’s spokeswoman and two officials for comment about the secrecy award they’d just received. None of them responded.

Perhaps they were out shopping for that frame after all.

“I think by and large its hard for people who arent journalists or open government advocates to get excited about issues like this,” Paskus says. “But I think there is a segment of our society in New Mexico who is watching, in particular, the Gila diversion issue and thinking, ‘Why is this happening the way that it is? And why is this money being spent the way that it is?’”

Ultimately, those are the questions Paskus would rather answer through her reporting.

UPDATE: After this article published, the commission's spokeswoman sent SFR an email calling the award "ridiculous" and claiming that under Susana Martinez, "the ISC is more transparent than ever before." The spokeswoman said the commission posts meeting notices 10 days in advance and posts draft agendas 72 hours prior to meetings. The ten-day posting is more notice than what is required by state law, though it is no more than what the attorney general recommends. The 72-hour posting is actually required. What's more, the law says the ISC must post a final agenda by that time, not a draft.

SFR has asked the Interstate Stream Commission for further proof that it is more transparent than it has ever been before and for an interview with the commission director.

 

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