I file a lot of public information requests. That's the job. We use New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act to watchdog the government and report back to you what we find.
Today, I'm sharing information about the Department of Health. However, it isn't about the information I formally requested. Instead, I want to tell you about the front of the envelope containing the DOH's letter responding to my request.
The letter was the very same letter they'd already sent me in PDF format via e-mail. The state paid $5.54
to send it to me again via certified mail. This isn't the first time DOH has paid a small fortune to send me a redundant letter.
Here's how an records request works under New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act. You file a request, the agency has three days to get back to you in writing and another 15 days to produce the documents, unless they're unusually burdensome. The process is very simple, and made even simpler by recent legislation allowing the public to file these requests via e-mail.
Obviously it costs some time and little money for an agency to produce the information, and that's unavoidable. It's just part of the cost of accountability. However, I personally don't think the state should incur unnecessary expenses. So, I've begun adding to my public records requests a line waiving the 3-day snail mail response in exchange for an email response. Some departments go for that. Some don't.
Governor Bill Richardson's office, for example, claims that there is nothing in the law allowing a requester to waive snail mail. There's nothing in the IPRA, however, that says a requester can't: The state's response only has to be in writing. I don't think any citizen with an email account would object to saving $5 which would be better spent on, say, school textbooks or health care for the uninsured.
Recently we filed a series of requests with the governor's office via email. After the three days had elapsed, we emailed Richardson's office alerting them that if we didn't receive a response we would take the next step in enforcing the law and contact the Attorney General's office.
Deputy Chief of Staff Gilbert Gallegos wrote back almost immediately claiming that the letter had been "mailed within the deadline." We figured we'd check his claim on the postmark.
Sure enough, we received it later that afternoon.
No postmark. No postage. The letter itself though was dated to comply with the three-day rule.
I called up the southwestern region communications guy for the US Postal Service. He said it was "very, very, very, unlikely" that a letter--even from the governor--would make it through USPS' system without receiving at least a date stamp in the upper right corner. His best guess was that it was hand delivered.
There's way for us to tell, I guess, whether the governor's office really was in compliance or not. At least it didn't cost taxpayers anything.