Remedial Lessons in Public Records Needed?

The following article by William Patrick Leonard, senior fellow with the Rio Grande Foundation, was published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on 6/4/23.

According to the state Attorney General’s Office, “The Inspection of Public Records Act is intended to provide the public with access to information on governmental affairs. The law requires public access to virtually all public records with a few exceptions. Most records are available for public inspection.”

Early responses were encouraging. One research institution responded within three days. Three comprehensives and one research institution sent the requested data within two weeks. All were com- plete, although varying in format. New Mexico Highlands and UNM were non-compliant. The latter quickly denied my request, claiming an exemption from an Attorney General’s Office finding in an unrelated municipal case.

The following briefly describes how New Mexico’s public research and comprehensive universities responded to a request for data.

I appealed, noting that its rationale was flawed. Highlands was more evasive. Initially, I was redirected to other officers within the institution. Finally, I was advised that the officer responsible was off campus and unavailable to respond. My subsequent attempts failed.

I requested the number of first- time, full-time fall 2017 through 2021 New Mexico enrollees required to take between one and four remedial courses; the number completing that fall term; and the number enrolling in the subsequent spring term.

The two institutions employed different noncompliance tactics. Both appeared to have the same goal: wear the requester out. Follow- ing the Public Records Act, I sought the state’s Attorney General Office’s assistance. Some communication between the agency and Highlands led to a response that it did not have any enrolled students required to register in remedial coursework.

I first filed a public information request form with the listed custodians at the state’s public universities — Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico Highlands University, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Tech, Northern New Mex- ico College, the University of New Mexico and Western New Mexico University suggested otherwise.

Highlands does enroll probationary and non-degree students. Further, its catalog lists a course, “English Reading and Writing for Inquiry. This course offers instruction and practice in college-level critical reading and writing skills. It is designed to give students experienceand practice developing academic inquiry needed for much of their course- work.

While the data sought likely exists, it appears to be secret. Why the institution did not reveal its current policy remains unanswered. The Attorney General’s Office appears to haveclosed the case.

The AG’s approach to UNM, cit- ing the cover of an unrelated municipal case, has remained unresolved.I was informed that it had queried the institution and referred its response to the attorneys.Three subsequent requests for the resolution to the AG’s Office have yet to receive a response.

Five of seven relatively prompt responses suggest my request did not pose major assembly or confidentiality issues.My experience indicates the Inspection of Public Records Act’s measured enforcement facilitates selective noncompliance.

Why fight the law? The prompt response from five of seven does not suggest resource issues. Perhaps the data sought challenges a desired public image. Since the data sought focuses on the graduates of New Mexico’s primary and secondary schools,any embarrassment should be rested.

Revoking the law has been advanced. It would only lead to lengthy and costly lawsuits.A more reasonable solution would include timely and consistent compliance and enforcement.

William Patrick Leonard is a senior fellow with the Rio Grande Foundation.