The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government announced today that the City of Albuquerque will charge no more than $6.75 for DVDs and $2.75 for CDs for public records requests. This is a big win for not just journalists but everyone with an interest in accessing records that are available under the law. The change provides fair, consistent rates and lets people know what prices to expect in advance.
At the beginning of April, I filed a public records request for all of the audio and video associated with 24 fatal, Albuquerque police officer-involved shootings since 2010. On May 1, the city alerted me that my records were ready to pick up. But they came with a hefty price tag: $1,160—that’s $20 for each DVD and cassette. I requested the records on behalf of the New Mexico Compass, a nonprofit startup dedicated to transparent, open-access journalism for which I'm editor in chief.
The Compass couldn't afford the records. The same is probably true for most individuals seeking records who are not backed by organizations with budgets for this kind of thing.
For folks new to this conversation: New Mexico has a law in place called the Inspection of Public Records Act that’s a little tougher than the national law, the Freedom of Information Act. If you hear people talking about IPRA or FOIA requests, that’s what they’re referencing.
So what’s a public record? According to NM FOG, that term includes any materials used on behalf of a public body that relates to public business.
The IPRA comes from a 1977 ruling from the state Supreme Court that says the public’s right to know is the rule, and secrecy is the exception. Think about those words for a minute. They’re excellent. You have the right to know exactly what the government or its agencies are up to. And if government wants to keep something a secret, it has to prove why.
But the price barrier is an issue. I asked if the city would waive the $1,600 fee in the public interest, allow us to provide thumb drive and download the material for free, or come down and view the records in person. This is all standard procedure for accessing records. The answer to each request was no. NM FOG tried to negotiate our fee down and didn’t have any luck.
So I scrambled. I borrowed some cash and enlisted the help of media partners KUNM and Citizen Media Group in covering that fee. It’s lucky that I have such supportive family, community and colleagues. But it’s important to remember that not everyone does. And under the law, everyone should have access to records.
When my coworkers and I went to pick up the records, we were confronted with an even more bizarre experience. The records custodian had handed them over, and I paid. The cashier accepted my money, then walked back into her office and returned with odd news: The city attorney had called down and said they weren’t releasing the records after all. I refused to give them back, and after a few tense minutes, someone came downstairs and said we could take them.
The Compass made many attempts to understand why this happened and why we were charged so much. We’ve gotten no response. In conversations with reporters for other outlets in Albuquerque, I discovered that they’re charged a wide range of fees for the same records. Some outlets get records for free.
We met with NM FOG to talk about the issue. We wanted to advocate for consistent pricing that’s obvious to everyone. And agencies shouldn’t be able to get away with charging $20 per record. The fee should not impede access to records.
About two weeks ago, I got a call from Albuquerque's Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler. He said the city was going to send me a check for $768.50, refunding two-thirds of our payment. That means we ended up paying the rate that the city will be charging in the future. I asked Wheeler why we were charged so much in the first place and what had made them change their minds about our fee.
“Because it seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.
That's not much of an explanation, but Wheeler's right. It is the right thing to do.
I still have a lot of questions I’m trying to get answers to, there are more records battles to be won, and we’re only at the beginning of an in-depth KUNM and Compass police records project. As a team, we'll be reporting on what the audio and video reveal, especially as they relate to public health and mental health. And the Compass will be launching a project later this month to create a searchable database of the records available to everyone.
Today, it’s great to see the city responding to concerns and working toward a good, fair policy on records and fees. Not just for me, not just for journalists—for everyone.