Some Curry County public servants are twisting the law to prevent daylight from shining on public records.
The Clovis News Journal sued Curry County last week over the refusal of its attorney to release pay information on county workers. We had asked the county for names of employees, their positions, their annual salaries and other pay received, and the value of their benefit package paid by the county.
This information has long been ruled public record by New Mexico’s courts.
We asked for the same information from Clovis Municipal Schools, Clovis Community College, the city of Clovis, and state and federal authorities.
As of today, only the county and the Internal Revenue Service have not released the information. IRS officials have said they will release it. Curry County has said no.
County attorney Stephen Doerr disdains reality — and the state’s public records laws — with this false logic: He contends the public information is on documents that include private information, such as Social Security numbers. Since the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act doesn’t require creation of “new documents,” he claims the county isn’t bound by the law.
The newspaper asks only that the county redact — or black out — the private information on the existing public documents. Doerr has declined that request.
And County Manager Geneva Cooper has accepted the misguided advice, just as she did when Doerr tried to block this newspaper from seeing the jail report on the death of an inmate about two years ago. It took several months, and the threat of a lawsuit, before the county released that record in question.
We have tried being logical and courteous in seeking public records from the county. But our patience has expired.
We are also suing to recover our legal fees this time.
Here are a few other answers to questions you may have. If you have others, please call Editor David Stevens:
Q: Is the newspaper trying to obtain public employees’ Social Security numbers and other private information?
A: No. We have not asked for that kind of information and we don’t want it. We want only public employees’ names, positions, pay and benefits — what the courts have ruled is public information.
Q: Why does the newspaper want this information?
A: There has been a lot of talk and reporting about public employee pay in recent years. Readers, the people who pay those wages, deserve to know if the low pay claims made by some are valid. We will study the data, ask questions of elected leaders and government bureaucrats, and report the findings. Printing information about the highest-paid people at each entity isn’t merely titillating gossip, as some claim. Pay charts and responses to questions about the data can tell readers a lot about government efficiency or lack of same.
The public that knows what its government is doing can regulate its public servants better.
Q: Will the newspaper publish all the information it receives?
A: Probably not. We’ve not decided exactly what to print because we are still reviewing the data we do have, and more is on the way. Our reporting staff is small and has daily duties to fulfill at the same time, so it may take a month or more to analyze the numbers, collect answers to our questions and put it all in perspective. Our first thought is to focus on trends and averages. We think many readers want to know salaries and benefits for the highest-paid public employees, but reporting specific salaries for all school teachers, maintenance workers and clerical staff might be redundant and of little value. Reviewing all on the payroll is important not only for fairness sake but to see if the numbers indicate problems.
Q: Why did the newspaper file a lawsuit against the county? Can’t the dispute be worked out without going to court?
A: We tried to avoid a lawsuit. The county attorney’s response left only two options: Withdraw the request, or let the courts decide.
We ran into obstacles at first with other public entities, but resolved them fairly quickly. Clovis school officials presented the same argument as the county, but Superintendent Neil Nuttall agreed to create documents that only contain public information. The school charged the newspaper $107 to create those documents. We complained a little because we believe the school should have already had these documents on file as a responsible public entity, but we agreed to the charges. At least now the district should make those documents available for public inspection at no cost and make copies for a nominal fee.
City of Clovis officials provided the most detailed pay and benefit information — at no charge — less than two days after receiving our written request. We applaud them for knowing their duty. No such luck with Doerr, whose firm also represents other area public entities. He responded to two letters from us, flatly refusing to release the information.
Q: Would the newspaper drop the lawsuit if the county agrees to provide the information you’ve requested?
A: Not without a series of legally binding guarantees that this government agency will become open to public scrutiny. Plus we want our legal fees reimbursed. Why should anyone have to pay a lawyer to sue for public information? If the county is penalized for lawbreaking, maybe these recalcitrant leaders — Doerr and Cooper — won’t continue their history of trying to keep information hidden from public view.
This case needs a clear winner. We believe that will be the public, whom we represent, not the darkened halls of government.
Here’s our greatest concern: If a government entity can legally refuse to release information by placing an employee’s private information on an otherwise public document, that could effectively seal all government documents. That’s the foundation of Curry County’s argument for not releasing the salary information. Nobody asked the county to include Social Security numbers on employee rosters with salary information; the county chooses to do it this way.
If the ploy works, we fear it could spread. Any government would not have to release information on any topic. That thought should frighten everyone.