Public records not private matter

By Ray Sullivan

Five years ago next month, New Mexico legislators defeated — for the second time in two years — a bill that would have set up an electronic portal that the state declared would make public records more accessible.

The bill died because it was poorly thought out and ambiguously worded. Those flaws raised concerns about the proposed law being unconstitutional, that it could favor one vendor that resold public documents over another, and that could actually slow or limit access to public records.

Soon after, Gov. Bill Richardson announced an interim legislative committee would assess the state’s intentions. He stated: “… I do not want even the appearance that state government is limiting access to any legitimate public information. … I will make state information services personnel and data, and whatever else is required, available to aid in this process. It is my goal that we can reach a consensus on a process and appropriately funding in time for the next Legislature.”

Guess what? That never happened.

It never will, if the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department leaders have their way.

They are ignoring the Legislature’s earlier decisions and the governor’s intent by saying they have administrative authority to do what they want with these records. Tax and Revenue Secretary Rick Homans has solicited a request for proposal (RFP) to find one vendor to set up and run an ePortal that would collect and sell driver and vehicle records at, purportedly, no cost to New Mexico. He has done so over strong objections from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the New Mexico Press Association and several private record reseller firms.

Homans and his folks did not alert FOG, NMPA or others of his plan before the RFP was issued. They tried to slip it under the radar. Only in the last few weeks was the agency forced to meet with the concerned parties; nothing was satisfactorily clarified.

Among the concerns raised is a constitutional one that resellers of public records would have to pay a higher fee than the rest of the public for the same records. That would be a clear violation of New Mexico’s constitution.

Another concern was the wording of the RFP would favor a bid from one vendor in particular, and that firm would then have the advantage in possible future RFPs to establish an ePortal for other state agencies.

Ironically, Homans declares his folks chose this path because of their concerns for both our privacy and our tax dollars. They claim that since the six reseller contracts will expire soon they don’t have time to ensure the public documents are being handled properly. So the best option was to choose a private vendor, who would set up the ePortal up at no cost to New Mexicans.

Wow, a free lunch! Really?

What Homans has not explained is why his agency suddenly had no time, after several years under contract with these six record vendors to ensure they were following privacy protection requirements. Nor has he explained how they will address other concerns raised in the ePortal debates earlier in this decade.

All of these concerns demand answers before decisions are made by these bureaucrats whose salaries we pay to select one vendor who will determine the speed and order of the transfer of public documents to private oversight – all at a price that cannot violate the state constitution.
If Homans and his agency insist on pushing this agenda forward without time for a thorough public discussion with concerned citizens who have included many elected legislators and the governor, they should expect a new public records storm cloud to darken Santa Fe.

Many of us believe, as we have previously declared, that an ePortal could be a good thing if set it up with a structure and process that does not shred the state constitution and, ultimately, limit public access.

Ray Sullivan has been publisher of papers in Clovis, Portales and Tucumcari since November 2000. He has lobbied on behalf of open meetings and open records with the New Mexico Press Association board of directors.