By Jack King
Curry County’s attorney is using an inaccurate interpretation of the New Mexico Public Records Act to justify withholding county pay records, an attorney for the Clovis News Journal said on Monday.
The paper filed a lawsuit against the county Monday in 9th Judicial District Court, asking the court to order the county to turn over the records.
In connection with a planned story on pay and benefits in local government entities, the News Journal requested employees’ records from Curry County, the city of Clovis, Clovis Municipal Schools, state and federal entities. All have complied except the county.
Curry County Attorney Stephen Doerr sent the paper two letters, dated March 1 and March 9, denying the requests.
“The paper’s management felt they have no other option (to court action) in light of the fact that we’ve submitted two requests and all we’ve gotten is a reply saying the documents are not available in a format such that they could meet the requests,” said Max Best, a Clovis attorney representing the CNJ.
Doerr, in his March 9 letter, denied the requests even though he stated several county employees assured him they could create a document to meet the request.
Doerr’s March 1 letter to the newspaper says, “Please be advised that there is no document setting forth the name, position, salary and benefits of every person who works for Curry County. Therefore, there is nothing that can be produced to you under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.”
Best said Doerr’s interpretation of the act is the key difference of opinion between Doerr and the News Journal.
“We think the Inspection of Public Records Act requires the disclosure of that information, even though they claim such documents are not maintained,” Best said.
Also, Doerr said the county pay records that do exist contain private information, such as Social Security numbers, which cannot be revealed. The News Journal contends the county could submit the documents with the private information whited out, Best said.
Doerr on Monday said the county’s opposition to turning over the pay records is based on two points. “Some of the information on some of the documents is confidential. Your editor has said you could redact that, but my question is who gives you the authority to redact it?
“Also, the Public Records Act says if you say, ‘Give us the document,’ we give it to you. But, what the newspaper says is, ‘Give us all documents you have that lets us gather this information.’ I’m not sure the Open Records Act requires that we search and gather all the documents that would enable a source to put together the information they want,” he said.
“It’s not that the county is trying to keep anything from the newspaper, but if we’re going to err, it will be on the side of individuals’ rights,” Doerr said.
Clovis News Journal Editor David Stevens said part of the paper’s mission in conducting its salary survey is to “find out how easy it is for the public to access public information.”
“In the case of the city and Clovis Community College, they said, ‘Sure. No problem. Here it is. The taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going,’ ” Stevens said.
“When we asked Curry County, they shooed us away like we were pesky flies. I guess I’m a little confused by the county’s actions. I thought we the people were in charge. Curry County is acting like Big Brother rules.”
County Manager Geneva Cooper said a Friday editorial by Stevens headlined “Curry County continues history of secrecy” was an exaggeration.
“It’s never been my policy to be secretive. The record shows I’ve only denied records two times in 15 years, and that was on the advice of counsel,” she said.
“I feel like the commission will meet with Mr. Doerr and me to discuss the matter further.”