Press release: New laws make public access easier

Later this week, it will become easier for citizens to obtain government documents stored on computers.

As of June 17, government agencies in New Mexico will be required to provide digital copies of electronic public records upon request, and copy fees will be limited to the actual cost of downloading and sending the records. These new provisions were added to the Inspection of Public Records Act during the 2011 legislative session, in bills sponsored by Rep. Eleanor Chavez (D-Albuquerque) and Sen. Stephen Fischmann (D-Mesilla Park).

“Our freedom-of-information law was stuck in a paper-based world, especially when it came to copy fees,” New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) Executive Director Sarah Welsh said. “These changes

should go a long way toward facilitating the free flow of information between government and its constituents.”

Chavez’s bill also requires public agencies to post instructions for submitting records requests, including contact information for the appropriate staff member, on their website. A third public-records bill, sponsored by Sen. David Ulibarri (D-Grants),adds new voluntary protections for personal information such as Social Security numbers and bank-account numbers. Those changes take effect July 1.

The 2011 session was at least the second time in recent years that lawmakers have stepped in to recognize new technologies for purposes of public-records requests. During the 2009 legislative session, a bill carried by Rep. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) added language clarifying that requests submitted by e-mail or fax count as “written” requests. Written requests trigger a series of requirements and deadlines for the government – including a requirement to produce records or issue a written denial within 15 days.

2009 was also the first year that Chavez attempted to include digital-copying provisions; that bill was gutted in committee and then pocket-vetoed.

Welsh said the 2011 amendments represent one more step

toward full public access to digital information about the public’s business. FOG also backed a separate bill, sponsored by Cervantes, that would have created fair and equal access to state databases. The bill was

killed in committee after the state Taxation and Revenue Department spoke out against it.

For more information on changes to public-records law, including answers to frequently asked questions: http://www.nmfog.org