N.M. governor signs bill to make government agencies recognize e-mail records requests

NEW MEXICO — Government agencies in New Mexico will have toaccept electronic requests for public records after the governor signed a billApril 3 inspired by a state university’s rejection of an e-mailrequest.

House Bill 598, sponsored by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, statesthat communication by e-mail or fax qualifies as a “written” requestrequired under state law.

“Government actors should not be able to rely on artificial barriersto avoid making public records available to the public,” Cervantes saidfollowing a 64-0 House of Representatives vote on March 4, according to theNew Mexico Independent. “With this legislation, no government actorcan hide behind an argument that a records request must be printed and mailed orhand-delivered to constitute a valid request.”

When journalist Heath Haussamen sent a public records request to New MexicoState University in May 2007 seeking records about the institution’sfundraising foundation, the university responded that the request was not validbecause it was sent via e-mail.

Haussamen resubmitted the request in person, but then contacted Cervantes.He also sought an opinion from the state attorney general, who concluded thatpublic agencies should respond to e-mail requests in the spirit of the law, butwere not legally required to do so. Haussamen said most agencies already respondto e-mail requests, but this new law assures state agencies keep up withtechnology and provide documents in a timely way.

“It’s just another way to ensure that governments can’t stonewall thepublic,” he said.

A similar bill, H.B. 534, also made it to Gov. Bill Richardson’sdesk. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Eleanor Chavez, D-Albuquerque, originallyrequired public agencies to also provide documents electronically, but thatportion was removed in a committee amendment. Chavez said she is thinking aboutreintroducing that bill because providing documents electronically would savepaper and make the process easier for citizens who have to go pick uprecords.