Rio Grande Foundation Settles Public Records Lawsuit Against Bernalillo County

After thirty-two months of litigation and negotiation, the Rio Grande Foundation is pleased to announce the settlement of the lawsuit related to Bernalillo County’s lack of transparency and openness. The actions of the county have proven to be antithetical to the principles of open government.

In 2019, Bernalillo County considered enacting the Employee Wellness Act which would require businesses with a physical presence and at least two employees in unincorporated parts of the county to provide at least one hour of paid leave for every 32 hours worked. This was to be voted on by the county commission during the summer of 2019.

The Rio Grande Foundation requested Bernalillo county voters submit feedback in opposition to the policy. In order to track the sentiment of the population, the Foundation submitted a request to inspect public records on June 21, 2019. The requested records were emails sent from the public related to the ordinance.

After repeated delays and inaction from the county, the Foundation filed a petition for a temporary restraining order against the Bernalillo County Commission to halt any further action on the pending ordinance. Judge James Noel denied the temporary restraining order but considered the case to compel the production of records.

Eventually the county produced some records, although the records were improperly redacted. The responsive documents included emails from residents of Albuquerque. However, the residents in favor of the ordinance had their email addresses redacted from the responsive documents while those against the ordinance were not redacted, presenting the county’s bias.

In September of 2020, Judge Victor Lopez ruled that the county’s redactions were correct but the delays were not. This decision was appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals ruled in the Foundation’s favor on issues of both timeliness and improper redactions in 2021, awarding the Foundation fines and fees in accordance with the Inspection of Public Records Act. The award included attorneys fees and a monetary settlement.

The Foundation’s President, Paul Gessing, applauded the decision: “This is a victory for transparency. Bernalillo County was clearly at fault in not providing timely access to public records. We are pleased that the Court of Appeals found in favor of the public’s right to know. We are hopeful that Bernalillo County adopts new policies and procedures to ensure that lawful requests to inspect public documents are promptly honored.”