Albuquerque pays more than $1M settling IPRA lawsuits

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Accountability and transparency are the cornerstones of democracy. That’s why the state established a law allowing for the inspection of public government documents.

But, it turns out you’re footing a growing bill from the City of Albuquerque’s inability to follow that law.

The city’s litigation report is supposed to give the Albuquerque City Council an overview of dollars spent settling legal disputes.

In the fourth and final report for fiscal year 2023, the city spent nearly $550,000 paying out lawsuits related to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, or IPRA. 

“This report is another one in a series that tells us we’re spending a lot of money, paying folks for being delayed in giving records that we should have been able to give,” said City Councilor President Pat Davis. 

For the entire fiscal year, that number jumps past a million dollars.

“I think it should be a real wake-up call to the city council and the mayor to put as much money as needed to actually follow the law,” said Karen Moses, board president for the New Mexico Foundation of Open Government. “The belief is that any records that are created by a public agency should be public. It’s taxpayer money paying for that, it should be public.”

The law on IPRA says the public is entitled to those records within a window of time. A handful of lawsuits allege that window is unreasonably pushed further and further out by the City of Albuquerque.

The lawsuit says, at times, public records are withheld entirely, while others are heavily redacted.

Davis says it’s a process that’s getting more and more burdensome for the city to adequately address.

“Unfortunately, some attorneys in town are taking advantage of the free labor to comb through the police report and just request everything, every day which creates a lot of work. It’s still our job, we have to do it, but it’s slowing the process down,” said Davis. 

He says last spring city council invested a half million dollars in the clerks’ office to get folks hired and requests responded to. The city clerk’s office says that money funded eight additional contract staff.

Moses says it’s a complex issue that needs even more thought and attention.

“I think the more taxpayers are aware and legislators are aware that taxpayers are spending this kind of money on this. Hopefully, that will raise the profile, and they will realize how important it is,” said Moses. 

The city sent KOB 4 the following statement Monday:

“The City has made and continues to make improvements and changes to its processing of IPRA requests through staffing, workflow improvements, and outreach. For example, since 2018, the City has funded an increased number of positions in the Clerk’s Office devoted to IPRA.  We currently have fifteen full time positions that focus on processing requests under IPRA and, in the 2023-2024 Budget, the Mayor and City Council, funded eight additional contract positions.  We are also always working to improve the way we gather, review, and analyze records with a goal of reducing processing time.  There are some types of records such as body worn camera, however, that simply take a significant amount of time to process.   Requests for Albuquerque Police Department records – which often include body worn camera – account for the bulk of the requests we process.  In addition to adding staff, we have been conducting outreach efforts to our largest requesters. The city receives a large number of requests each year from a small group of mostly commercial requesters.  Small changes in what these large requesters seek can have a significant impact on our work and we greatly appreciate their assistance in helping to improve the process.  

Public records laws are a complex subject.  While staffing is part of the “puzzle,” it alone will not entirely resolve the challenges public bodies face under IPRA as it is currently drafted.”