County turns to legal jargon for defense

Clovis’ public schools, the city of Clovis and Clovis Community College have all taken action in recent weeks that shows they’re beginning to understand the importance of open government.
We wish we could say the same for Curry County where County Manager Geneva Cooper, attorney Steve Doerr and county commissioners are still fighting hard to keep public business their own little secret.
First, the good news about local public records’ access:
n The school board last month relaxed a long-standing policy that left its agenda under the control of one individual. Previously, only the school board president could approve an item for discussion by the board. Last month’s decision allows any board member to place an item on the agenda. The change means taxpayers who want issues discussed in a public forum may appeal to more than one set of ears.
n City commissioners went into executive session last month and told taxpayers what they planned to talk about behind closed doors. Previous policy had been to provide only vague information, but Commissioner Bobby Sandoval pushed for change after editorials by this newspaper and consultation with the state’s attorney general’s office.
n Clovis Community College recently established a written policy for the inspection of public records that meets guidelines recommended by the attorney general. CCC also changed its language for executive session items, providing the public more insight into discussion topics.
We are thrilled with the evidence that leaders of these three public entities seem to have realized the sunshine is the right place to conduct public business. Curry County, unfortunately, still doesn’t get it.
Last week, county attorney Steve Doerr filed a motion asking the 9th district court to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by this newspaper. The county claims procedural errors were made when the newspaper asked for information about county employees’ wages and benefits. In other words, the county is relying on legal jargon in hopes of justifying its unconscionable attempts to prevent the free flow of public information.
When the newspaper asked officials with other local entities for employees’ salary and benefits information, they provided it, as the law requires. When we asked the county, it refused — twice in writing. Left with no options, we asked the court to force the county to release the public documents.
A few days later, the county produced the documents. County officials’ actions since then have been almost as odd as the initial refusal to release the documents:
n The county claims it was planning to release the documents all along. (So they were just kidding with those letters in which they refused to release the documents?)
n The county claims the newspaper should have sued the county’s board of commissioners and not “Curry County, New Mexico.” (Never mind the issue, these public officials prefer to play word games.)
n The county claims the paper failed to state the specific public record being sought. (We asked for the name, position, salary and benefits of every person who works for Curry County. How much more specific could we be?)
Forgive us if we’ve grown angry with county actions. They seem to be saying to taxpayers, “If you want public information from us, you’ll have to hire a lawyer and sue us.”
Access to public records is not supposed to require spending tens of thousands of dollars for an attorney to force the records’ release. The records are legally required to be free for the asking.
Our county officials don’t seem to understand the concept. It is our intent with this lawsuit to make them understand.
We want to be reimbursed for our attorneys’ fees. We should never have been forced to file suit; the information we sought was clearly public record with precedent-setting cases dating to the 1960s.
We want a formal ruling from the court that the information we sought was indeed public record in case the county decides to pull a stunt like this again.
And we want the county to tell the public what it plans to discuss when commissioners adjourn into executive session. Simply put, we’re asking the county follow the law established in the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Our county officials are fighting our demands, not with logic, but with legal jargon. We’re not surprised. Just disappointed, again.