Friday, November 20, 2009

Public records reform a must.

In the Journal this morning, link, the editors point to the decision by the New Mexico Environment Department, to stop wasting tax dollars obstructing the release of public records.

The records in question are a consultant's report on potential groundwater contamination risks at a landfill operated by Sandia National Laboratories. They wrote;

This week the department abandoned its position that the public might be “confused” if the report recommends one thing and the agency does something else.

The report, paid for by taxpayers, clearly was in the public's health and safety interests. But the New Mexico Environment Department has spent thousands in taxpayer dollars for legal fees to try to keep it under wraps on the ridiculous claim that it fell under “executive privilege,” even though the state Attorney General's Office and a district court judge said it was public record. (emphasis added)
There is an obvious and unavoidable "appearance of a conflict of interest" in allowing politicians and public servants to do their own redaction of the public records they are required to surrender under the NM Inspection of Public Records Act.

All records of the spending of public resources and power are public records. Not all public records should be made public; there are good and ethical reasons to keep some records from public knowledge. The NMIPRA recognizes them, and provides exceptions from surrender.

Whether a record is subject to surrender or not, it is still a public record. It belongs to the public, not to the individual, department, office, or agency that created it.

There is no reason that the redaction of public records is the sole responsibility of the person who happens to have that record in their possession. In fact, there is no reason that that person should be able to redact the record in the first place; it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. It provides that opportunity to redact records unnecessarily in order to protect personal or departmental interests.

In this particular case, the records were redacted for no reason except that the NMED did not want to deal with the "confusion" created by their decision to ignore the findings of their consultant.

A simple and effective reform;
all requests for public records go to one office. That office would
retrieve the record, redact it appropriately, and then surrender
it immediately.

If there is going to be a fight over the surrender of records,
the fight should be between this office and those holding the
records, not between a powerless requester and a powerful
politician or public servant underwritten by the power and
resources of their office.

The redaction process must be "due process". The record holder
and the record seeker must have equal standing in questioning
any redaction. The final decision must be principled and impartial.

No one in the NMED is going to be held accountable for wasting tax dollars in the pointless litigation of this case; there is no penalty for politicians and public servants playing games with public records.

I suspect that self-redaction of public records may be the current process, not because it is the best process, not because anyone made a deliberate decision to do it that way, but simply because that is the way it has "always been done".

Well, it needs to be done differently, starting now.

Candidates for Governor, are invited to reveal their plan to
end the unnecessary redaction and delay, part and parcel to
the current process.

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