SFR Editor On The Fight For Open Government
Around the country we’ve seen tensions escalate between elected officials and journalists. Here in New Mexico, the story is the same. And four years ago, the Santa Fe Reporter sued Gov. Susana Martinez, saying her office violated the state’s Constitution when it shut out the paper for covering her administration’s use of private email for public business.
Last week, District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that the paper’s free press rights weren’t violated but that the governor’s staff did break New Mexico’s open records law. KUNM spoke with Julie Ann Grimm, the Santa Fe Reporter’s editor and publisher, about whether the decision is a loss.
GRIMM: I feel like there’s a vindication in that the court found that the Governor’s Office violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act multiple times. The judge didn’t find that the governor had violated it as many times as we believe she did, but the fact that the court agrees that there are many documents the governor should have provided that her office failed to provide and that her office broke the law—that’s a major victory for open government in New Mexico, and not just for newspapers but for everyone who is seeking information about what the government does in our name.
KUNM: We talk about this as a free press issue, but at its core, we’re also talking about whether elected officials have to answer questions about what they’re up to and the business they do on the public’s behalf. How do you think this ruling affects everyday people?
GRIMM: There are some really nuanced legal issues at play when it comes to the constitutional question, but really what the judge is saying is that it’s OK for elected officials to choose who they will talk to and about what. And we still fundamentally disagree with that. That’s why we brought the case, because we felt like it wasn’t appropriate for a government official to discriminate about who they talk to.
KUNM: What do you think it means overall that a District Court judge has ruled that the governor violated transparency laws? And do you think this will affect Gov. Susana Martinez’ last year in office or whatever she might choose to do next?
GRIMM: I’m not sure that it will. The idea that the governor fought so hard when this newspaper alleged that her office had violated the law really seems to indicate where she stands on the law. So I’m not sure that this ruling will really change how Gov. Martinez and her administration view the law.
I think it’s probably too early to know whether this will affect her reputation or affect the way that the Office of the Governor deals with information requests in the future.
KUNM: One of the things that really struck me during the trial is that when people ask for public records—say emails—there’s not a real way to ensure that those get sent along. It seemed like the records custodian testified that she just tells the person, “Hey can you send me those emails about this?” But there’s no real guarantee that it happened. Does that stand out to you, too?
GRIMM: That’s part of why we sought the establishment of an effective process, because we thought that would help really define what steps you need to take as a records custodian. It does not seem adequate to us that you just sort of send an email, “Hey does anybody have any documents?” We think that there should be a more defined, aggressive approach to that. But the judge didn’t agree with that.
I think that brings kind of a larger point up, which is that, when the government tells you no, when they say “We don’t have what you’re looking for,” or “We don’t want to give you what you’re looking for,” the way that the laws are written in New Mexico, it’s really on the requester to keep pursuing. It’s on the requester to file court action, and we feel like it’s a shame that enforcing this law requires businesses and individuals to undergo these lengthy and costly court battles.
KUNM: How do you think this decision will affect the paper’s relationship with the governor and her staff for the remainder of her term?
GRIMM: I’m not sure about that. But I think that this governor has issued some pretty clear marching orders to her cabinet-level officials and to people within her own administration about what kind of messages she wants to go out and the very limited way in which they want government employees to be accessed by the media. That hasn’t changed. There’s still a pretty good lockdown on the information coming from the state government, and I don’t see that changing until there’s a different governor.