New Mexico to Begin Posting State Agency Settlements Online

Legal settlements involving state agencies will soon be posted online, ending a long-standing process that required public records requests. The new system will post documents as soon as the law allows.

by Dan McKay, Albuquerque Journal / June 21, 2019
Shutterstock/Erce

(TNS) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration is preparing to make it easier for the public to track pricey settlements that resolve claims against New Mexico state agencies.

Ken Ortiz, Cabinet secretary for the General Services Department, said Thursday that his department is working with the state’s information technology staff to establish a page within New Mexico’s online Sunshine Portal where settlements would be published.

The agreements would go online as soon as allowed by law, usually 180 days after the settlement is reached or the department closes the claim administratively.

Under the current system, the agreements can be obtained only after the confidentiality period has expired and someone files a request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. But for members of the public, it’s often unclear which claims have been settled or when they can be disclosed.

“I fully support making these publicly available,” Ortiz said in an interview. “It’s the taxpayers’ dollars, and every New Mexican should be able to access this information without the required IPRA.”

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said Ortiz is making the right move. The public has a strong interest in seeing how public money is spent, she said, and people deserve timely access to the settlements.

“It’s a victory for open government,” Majors said.

Debate over the secrecy surrounding state settlements has intensified in recent years.

In May, Lujan Grisham said she won’t enforce an unusual secrecy provision contained in at least one settlement agreement approved during her predecessor’s administration, when Susana Martinez served as governor.

The unusual agreement called for the terms of the settlement to remain sealed until 2023 – several years rather than the standard 180 days of confidentiality.

The settlement involved a lawsuit that accused then-State Police Chief Pete Kassetas of discrimination against officers based on gender and sexual orientation. It contained allegations that the chief had mooned employees and sent an image of a man’s testicles blocking out the sun to a female deputy Cabinet secretary.

Kassetas denied the allegations.

The settlement, in any case, will become public this summer once the 180-day confidentiality period expires.

In this year’s legislative session, Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque and Democratic Rep. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe pushed for more disclosure of how much New Mexico spends to settle allegations of discrimination in state agencies.

The proposal, Senate Bill 317, passed the Senate without opposition in March but failed to make it through the House in the last week of the session.

The proposal called for the state to publish the nature of discrimination claims, the agency against which they were lodged and the total amount of state money used to settle the allegation, including damages and attorney fees.

Publication would happen on the state’s online Sunshine Portal after a certain amount of time elapsed.

Ortiz said Thursday that he supports the legislation. Its passage would bind future administrations, and legislators could make other changes in the law to boost disclosure of settlement agreements.

As for the automatic posting his department is pushing for, Ortiz said the first settlements should be published online in August.

It should save money, he said, by streamlining the process for releasing settlements.

©2019 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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