County’s change of heart is encouraging

David Stevens

Welcome to the new Curry County, where government officials say they have nothing to hide.
We’ve heard the words before. Now those words have been backed up with some action in the past 10 days.
Last month, the Clovis News Journal requested salary records from Clovis’ public schools, Clovis Community College, the city of Clovis and Curry County. Only the county refused to release the information.
A newspaper reporter asked for the county records informally, and in two formal letters that cited the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. All requests were refused.
The newspaper filed a lawsuit on March 15 in hopes of forcing the county to release the documents, which the courts declared public record four decades ago.
Four days after the lawsuit was filed, the county provided current employees’ hourly wages and job titles. And on Thursday, officials released documents that included 2003 salaries for individual employees.
County Manager Geneva Cooper said Thursday she would also provide additional information related to employee salaries, such as overtime wages, on request.
That’s quite an about face.
County Attorney Stephen Doerr said in letters to the newspaper earlier this month that the requested information could not be released because documents contained private employee information — including Social Security numbers — in addition to the public information.
Doerr also contended the county was not required to “create” documents to meet the newspaper’s request for the salary information.
I’m still not clear as to why the county has suddenly reversed its stance and decided to release the salary information, which does not include any private employee records. Cooper said only that she was tired of hearing the county was refusing to release information to the newspaper.
She seems to be bowing to public pressure and finally realizing the need to over-rule her county attorney, who has a long history of fighting the release of public documents.
While Cooper’s recent actions are encouraging, the case remains troubling: Curry County tried using private employee information as a shield to public access.
County officials never claimed county employee salaries were not public records — they claimed they didn’t have to release them because they were attached to private employee records.
Nobody asked the county to pair public records with private records. But their approach — if the courts were to buy it — could effectively prevent release of any public document. All the government would have to do is include an employee’s Social Security number on an otherwise public document and the record would be sealed.
Scary stuff.
But now that the salary documents have been released, the newspaper’s attorneys will probably get with the county’s attorneys in the next few weeks to discuss a settlement to the lawsuit. Unresolved issues remain:
1. We want our attorneys’ fees paid by the county. No one should have to sue a public entity to obtain public records. Any member of the public should have access to this information, just by asking.
2. We want a legal document that says the county will not attempt to hide public documents in the future.
3. And we want the county to be more specific in its language announcing topics for executive sessions. We think taxpayers should know what’s being discussed behind closed doors.
Hopefully, the county’s decision to release documents over the past two weeks reflects a change in attitude toward public access. If that trend continues, county officials will satisfy the demands in the lawsuit … and begin building a foundation for public trust.

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