New roadblock encountered over records

By David Stevens, editor

Our newspaper’s efforts to find out how much public officials get paid around here has hit another road block, this time from the Internal Revenue Service.
Several weeks ago, our reporters contacted officials at all the public entities in Curry County and asked for records documenting employees’ pay. It seemed like a simple enough request and we never imagined anyone would try to debate whether this information is public record.
Boy, were we wrong.
The paper’s battle with Curry County over pay records has been well documented and has gone to court. But as frustrating as that’s been, federal officials have now set a new standard for inaccessibility — another sad example of public servants forgetting they work for the taxpayers.
In mid-March, a Clovis News Journal reporter sent a letter to the IRS requesting Curry County employees’ “names, pay plans, job series, job titles and annual salary.” The language in the letter was suggested by an IRS public information officer.
On April 12, the Department of the Treasury responded to our letter, contending it did not meet requirements set forth by the Freedom of Information Act. The feds’ letter suggested we contact Disclosure Specialist Dan Kittrell if we had any questions.
And so on Monday, I called Kittrell and explained we were simply looking for a roster of IRS employees in Curry County, along with each employee’s salary in 2003.
Kittrell said individual salaries might be public record — but only if we could first provide an employee’s name. He said the IRS could not release any of its Curry County employees’ names.
Excuse me?
Our tax dollars pay the salaries of IRS employees, but taxpayers can’t find out these employees’ names? And we need the names to find out the salaries?
No reasonable person would argue that public employees’ names and their salaries should be accessible to those who pay those salaries. But it’s become evident in recent weeks that our government is not always reasonable. If we want the information released, we will have to pay thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees to make it happen.
Our newspaper has already paid out more than $3,000 in attorneys’ fees in efforts to secure payroll records of Curry County employees.
The county has released the information, but only after we filed a lawsuit.
That lawsuit is still pending, primarily because we believe we’re entitled to be reimbursed for our costs. This information is supposed to be public record, after all, available to anyone who wants to review it, free of charge.
Given the county’s history of fighting public access to information, we’re not surprised that County Attorney Stephen Doerr has recommended rejection of our settlement offer, which we submitted on April 12. The reason for his recommendation was surprising.
Doerr claims the newspaper is not entitled to attorneys’ fees because Curry County never refused to produce the documents requested.
I won’t pretend to understand lawyer talk, but here’s the English version of what happened:
A reporter asked Curry County Manager Geneva Cooper for the pay records. She said we had to ask the county attorney.
Doerr said he wanted the request in writing. When we met that request, Doerr responded in writing, “There are no documents that exist that can be produced to meet your request.”
So we asked our newspaper’s attorney for advice. He suggested we write Doerr another letter, using more formal language. Doerr’s response: “Please be advised that there is no document setting forth the name, position, salary and benefits of every person who works for Curry County.”
By my count, that’s at least three times we asked for county pay records and three times they were not produced.
“There are no documents that exist that can be produced to meet your request” sounds like a no to me.
But even if a court rules in the county’s favor, and even if it turns out the IRS employees’ salaries can be kept secret, I have to wonder if government has thought about the long-term impact of its actions and attitudes.

David Stevens is editor for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. He can be contacted at 1-800-819-9925. His e-mail address is:
david_stevens@link.freedom.com