Let There Be Light

SFR complaint close to resolution.

National Sunshine Week ended March 17, but for The Santa Fe Reporter, resolution to a 7-month-old complaint over access to public documents may still be a week away.

Sunshine Week, commemorated last week across the country by the media and watchdog groups, emphasizes laws that promote public access to government. In New Mexico, one of those laws is the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).

On Aug. 30 2006, SFR filed a complaint with New Mexico’s Office of the Attorney General alleging violation of the act by the Department of Corrections. The complaint stems from a six-month series by this paper on Wexford Health Sources, a private company that provides health care in the state prisons. SFR’s series led Gov. Bill Richardson to announce the state will end its contract with the company [”The Wexford Files”].

In the course of reporting, writer Dan Frosch requested from Corrections, in writing, records relating to off-site medical visits for inmates, information the state required from Wexford under its contract. The information was denied on the basis of it not existing. However, some information was subsequently released, leading SFR to conclude the initial denial had been inappropriate.

The AG is the enforcer of IPRA, however no action was taken on the complaint until recently. In an interview with SFR this week, Attorney General Gary King said his office will not allow complaints such as SFR’s to languish as they have in the past. He also said he is willing to consider creating either legal or administrative time parameters for following up on such complaints. “I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t develop some more standard operating procedures that would set some guidelines for what we think is appropriate,” King says. King’s office also recently posted on its Web site the complaints, which can be accessed under its Civil Division section.

Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, says enforcement of laws such as IPRA is a national problem. "When I talk to people around the country, week in and week out, what I get so often is complaints and frustrations over that very issue," Davis says. "There's a huge gap between the policy and the practice."

Bob Johnson, executive director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says he doesn't believe there are easy answers, but is confidant that enforcement of laws such as IPRA and the Open Meetings Act will be stronger under King's tenure than it was under former Attorney General Patricia Madrid.

"I'm very hopeful there will be a more aggressive response to complaints," Johnson says. "It's a matter of having an attorney general who want to enforce the law, it's a matter of watchdogs jumping on things and pursuing them, and of course it's a matter of [journalists] and the public pushing things through. If I knew a magic formula I was sure would work, I would tell you, but having done this since 1990, the best answer is hard work by everyone."

The AG’s Office tells SFR it expects action on its complaint by next week.

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