Curry County continues history of secrecy

David Stevens

Welcome to Curry County, where Big Brother rules.
It isn’t a motto the chamber of commerce would want to adopt, but the moniker is accurate for a community whose government bodies seem serious about closed-door meetings, hiding public documents and limiting or impeding the flow of information.
Two weeks ago, I complained about the city of Clovis and Clovis Community College thumbing their noses at state law by holding secret meetings and not telling the taxpayer what those meetings were about.
Now there is more unsettling news to report about abuse of power in our neighborhood: Curry County is refusing to tell taxpayers the salaries of its county employees.
Clovis News Journal reporters recently asked for the names, positions and salaries of employees at Curry County, Clovis’ public schools, the city of Clovis and CCC.
As of Thursday, only the college had provided the information.
City of Clovis officials said they will release payroll records once we present a formal, written request, which we did on Thursday. City Finance Director Don Clifton said the information we’ve requested is a public record and he’ll have no difficulty providing it.
School officials initially balked at the request, claiming it would cost $250 to $700 to produce the records. Then on Thursday afternoon, Superintendent Neil Nuttall said he’s hopeful the information can be provided electronically at little or no cost. He’ll let us know today or Monday.
But the attorney for Curry County has simply refused to release the salary information.
Steve Doerr, Curry County’s attorney, said he cannot provide the salary information because “there are no documents that exist that can be produced to meet your request.”
I guess he’s playing some kind of lawyer game. The county must have payroll records; how else could employees be paid? But, like most taxpayers, I don’t know the secret words to access this public information and so our request has been denied.
For history fans, this is the same county that refused to release records related to the death of a jail inmate in 2002. Officials refused, that is, until the Clovis News Journal presented a copy of a lawsuit it planned to file to force release of the documents.
It’s also the same county accused of conducting business outside the public’s view at budget time in 2001. That allegation didn’t come from the newspaper. It came from the county sheriff.
This is government of the people, by the people and for the people?
Several public officials, and a few private citizens, have said the newspaper has no business publishing salaries of school teachers, secretaries or janitors. They’ve said the information serves only to embarrass the employee.
I think the taxpayer is entitled to the information, whether it embarrasses anyone or not. If you don’t want your salary known to others, don’t work for a public institution. Reviewing how public monies are spent allows the public to determine if its money is being spent properly, as a whole and individually. If government officials are spending correctly, wisely, they should not fear the light of day.
We have not yet decided which salaries we plan to publish in the paper. But that will be our decision, not the government’s decision.
In our democracy, our government leaders have no right to tax us, then refuse to tell us what they are doing with our money.
The courts ruled in the 1960s that salaries of public officials are public record. This not a debatable issue. This is a sign of a county government out of control.

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