Like many New Mexico journalists, I spend an extraordinary amount of time asking state officials for information they don’t want to make public.
Between November and February, for instance, I tried to get the New Mexico Environment Department’s communications director to talk with me about climate change, set up interviews with department experts—including Secretary Ryan Flynn—and pass along information about program and plans. After months of unreturned phone calls, perfunctory texts, and emails with non-answers, in March, I filed two Inspection of Public Record Act, or IPRA, requests.
If I couldn’t get a human to answer my questions, at least I could compel the agency to comply with state law. Then, I could read through the electronic files myself, and try to figure out what sorts of plans or initiatives the state is still undertaking to address climate change, if any, and learn how New Mexico plans to comply with federal plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Suddenly, my phone started ringing.
Hours after I’d emailed my IPRA requests, communications director Allison Majure called, saying I might consider changing my request—“to balance the tradeoffs between the broadness of the request with the time that will be needed to fulfill it.” Over the course of two phone conversations, she advised me to tighten my request to reduce the amount of time the department would need to search for and then review the documents.
She speculated it will take the department two to seven months to comply with one of the requests. And that, she pointed out, probably wouldn’t help me—since my current one-year long project for New Mexico In Depth is nearly half-over.
Based on her initial conversations with other employees, she estimated there would be tens of thousands of pages related to “climate change.” The implication being that I wouldn’t get what I needed in time and staff would be burdened by my request.
That piqued my interest, given her earlier lack of answers: “It sounds like there’s a very robust discussion happening around climate change within the department,” I noted.
“Well, no, not more than any other,” she replied.
I’m often discouraged by how so-called communications directors and public information officers respond—or don’t respond—to questions, but I don’t think they’re rogue employees or people who take pleasure in sucking up a salary while sending reporters’ calls to voicemail.
Rather, their bosses bear the responsibility. Public information officers are told who to answer, who to blacklist; which issues to discuss, which to ignore. Their bosses—politically appointed cabinet secretaries—control what information makes it out of the agency. In that way, political actors control what the public knows. In the case of at least one agency, answers to my emailed questions had to be reviewed—twice—by the governor’s office before they were sent to me.
Clearly, denying reporters access to information and controlling what the public learns is an abuse of power.
When agencies refuse to answer questions or allow employees to talk to reporters, all New Mexicans suffer. In a democracy, the role of reporters is to provide information to the public about what’s happening on our beats and in our communities. We ask questions so that members of the public can make informed decisions.
For me, that means paying attention to river levels, drinking water standards, what’s happening to our forests, how the climate is changing, and what strategies are in place to ensure we all have clean water, clean air, and a future in our beautiful state.
Abuse of power and control over information has even more widespread repercussions. What biologists, hydrologists, engineers, technicians, or attorneys want to work in New Mexico state government, then have their hands tied and voice muzzled? What students will strive to work in state agencies? New Mexico already has a “brain drain” problem, and the current climate of control will do little to encourage our brightest students to stay in New Mexico and work toward solving any of our myriad problems.
I know that there are state employees who do good work on important issues and some public affairs officers who act with integrity, even if they can’t give journalists access to department experts the way they once could.
I’d thank them publicly, but I wouldn’t be doing them any favors.