Lawmakers anticipate “predictable opposition” to a proposal to weaken the state’s Sunshine Law
A panel of lawmakers weighing New Mexico’s court system between legislative sessions has chosen not to support a proposal to weaken the state’s Sunshine Act to protect judges from violence.
But lawmakers, who objected to the law, suggested work could still be done to convince transparency advocates that it would be a good change.
Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court Shannon Bacon introduced a bill to the Courts, Corrections and Judiciary Committee Tuesday on behalf of the Courts Administration Office.
One of the bills she introduced would add a seventh exemption to one of the state’s two most important sunshine laws, the Public Records Inspection Act.
“We think security systems, planning, wiring diagrams for every state building, every government building should be protected from IPRA requests,” she told the committee.
The bill presented to the committee would prohibit the public from viewing recordings “from the security system of a state agency or political subdivision of the state” that could “reveal weaknesses in security systems” in order to attack a government building.
“Political subdivisions” include things like city and county governments and state agencies.
The bill lists the following that fall under this category of security system records:
- Video footage or images from surveillance cameras.
- Control system records and information.
- Alarm system records and information.
- Technical data of the security system.
- Records of the operation of the security system.
- Information on the placement of the security system.
“We’re getting IPRA requests that aren’t necessarily nefarious, but are saying, ‘Please give us the footage of X-Events in court,'” Bacon said. “We’ve also recently noticed an increase in the number of people trying to figure out what the security system at the New Mexico Supreme Court is, including a gentleman walking through our building taking photos from all of our cameras with an iPad .”
Local journalists routinely use surveillance camera footage in their reporting, either from public buildings or police from private ones. In one case in 2019, a local newspaper used surveillance camera footage to support allegations of theft by a city manager. (Disclosure: Austin Fisher edited this series of stories.)
Committee chair Senator Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) opposed the bill because the written language was too broad.
“I will appeal, with all due respect, but just not because of the concept. I liked the concept,” said Cervantes. “But I think we should probably spend some time clearly defining what we want to exempt from IPRA when we’re talking about security systems, because I think from what I’m reading the bill it’s essentially all the records, related to security systems.”
Cervantes said he was concerned about the shielding of documents related to procurement, the process the New Mexico government must go through to buy goods and services from private companies fairly and transparently.
“I know that’s not what you intend to do, but I think that would exclude that,” Cervantes said. “We want to make sure that when people place orders, buy equipment and do things like that, those records aren’t exempt from IPRA.”
Cervantes also said the measure’s sponsors should work hard to “bring in the predictable opposition” that has historically resisted Legislature efforts to add more exceptions to IPRA, including the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the Albuquerque Journal.
“We spent a lot of time contemplating whether or not to bring this bill because we know touching IPRA has always felt like third rail,” Bacon said, laughing. “But we really believe there has to be a change” from IPRA.
Cervantes suggested working with these transparency advocates and convincing them that “judges are in danger, judges are being murdered, their families are being killed.”
There are already six exceptions that prohibit the public from seeing different types of recordings written in IPRA.
One of these special rules has language very similar to the bill’s and already allows the government to withhold its “tactical response plans or procedures” that “could uncover specific vulnerabilities, risk assessments, or tactical emergency security procedures that could be used to facilitate the planning or execution of a.” terrorist attack.”