In addition to chile, there’s one thing New Mexico has lots of and that’s sunshine. So much so, there are two state laws specifically called “Sunshine Laws,” whose aim is to shed light and transparency on what our elected officials and government agencies are doing.
The New Mexico Open Meetings Act and Inspection of Public Records Act have both been around since 1978, and have undergone minor legislative changes in the last four decades.
The names of the two acts are rather self explanatory in their goals.
The OMA — which recognizes “the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate” — sets out the rules for open government meetings, while IPRA grants members of the public access to government records.
OMA mandates the public be notified of the date, time and location of a government meeting at least 72 hours before it happens, obligates the agency to create a reasonably specific agenda so the public knows what will be discussed and voted on at the meeting and allows the public to observe the meeting, as well as make recordings in a way that doesn’t interfere with the meeting.
While the Act doesn’t require a governing body to allow members of the public to speak during meetings, most boards carve out time during a meeting for public comments.
The default expectation for meetings is that they will be open, but the OMA does contain 10 exceptions under which a governing body can close a meeting and meet in executive session, out of the public eye. The most common exceptions invoked are personnel matters and pending or threatened litigation.
The board may be able to discuss certain matters in a closed session, but any decision it makes must be done in an open, public meeting.
The Inspection of Public Records Act is often viewed as a law only used by members of the media. Fact is, anyone can request copies of public documents and records using IPRA.
Information that is considered public includes items such as payroll records and salaries of public employees, contracts between a public agency and private company, annual budgets and phone bills for agency-issued cell phones.
The key to the law is the “I” — while many people request copies of records, remember the law gives you the right to “inspect” or see records without a fee.
When requesting records, it’s best to do so in writing. Once the agency receives your request, it has three days in which to produce the record for your inspection or let you know when the information will be available. Unless an extension of time has been asked for and given, the agency has to produce the pertinent records for inspection within 15 days.
Another item to remember is if a record contains personal information, such as a Social Security number, the agency cannot deny access to the entire record — it is allowed to redact the personal information and provide the rest of the record.
Public records are anything held by a public agency — documents, videos, audio recordings and electronic files. Records requests can also be made for emails and other electronic communications.
Agencies are allowed to charge for copies of records — up to $1 per page — but that can be avoided by inspecting the records in person. A public agency cannot stop a person from taking pictures of or scanning a record they are inspecting.
The New Mexico Attorney General is responsible for enforcing OMA and IPRA, and addressing any complaints regarding compliance with the laws. Complete compliance guides for New Mexico’s Sunshine Laws can be found at nmag.gov.
The Valencia County News-Bulletin is a locally owned and operated community newspaper, dedicated to serving Valencia County since 1910 through the highest journalistic and professional business standards. The VCNB is published weekly on Thursdays, including holidays both in print and online.