COMMENTARY: Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration likes to call itself “the most transparent” in the state’s history. The Public Education Department (PED) sure isn’t living up to that standard.
A judge ordered PED on Wednesday to pay more than $14,000 in attorney’s fees that a teacher’s union racked up while suing PED. The lawsuit was necessary — PED violated the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) by failing to respond to a records request from the National Education Association (NEA) in a timely manner.
I wouldn’t expect an administration committed to transparency to never screw up. Humans are in charge there just like everywhere else. We all make mistakes.
But I would expect “the most transparent” to operate with a spirit of openness that includes owning up to its mistakes.
Instead, we got deflection and spin on Wednesday from PED spokesman Robert McEntyre: “Today’s ruling shows that these special interests would rather have more money spent in courtrooms than in our classrooms, where it belongs,” the Las Cruces Sun-News quoted him as saying.
Basically, he’s blaming the NEA for his own agency’s lawbreaking that resulted in $14,000 in public money — yours and mine — being spent on lawyers.
Several weeks ago I criticized the Martinez spin machine for such rhetoric. I’m really tired of it. So I’m going to call McEntyre’s quote what it is: crap.
PED broke the law
Here’s the truth: PED and the unions have been fighting a war over teacher evaluations. The NEA filed a public records request. It sought documents backing up Martinez’s claim that the old evaluation system she replaced found 99 percent of teachers effective. Martinez used that claim to argue that the system was obviously broken, saying 99 percent couldn’t be accurate with such poor graduation rates.
It turned out PED didn’t have records to back up the claim. For all I know it pulled the number out of thin air.
And PED waited months to tell the NEA that it had no documents to back up the statistic. By waiting, the education department violated IPRA, which requires timely responses to requests.
Too many government agencies play politics with public records. Another Martinez Administration agency, the Human Services Department, did it. I helped bring a lawsuit that resulted in that agency having to pay thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees. And the attorney general is looking into whether the office of State Auditor Tim Keller, a Democrat, illegally delayed responding to a GOP records request.
There are no criminal penalties for violating IPRA. The only recourse, the only deterrent to future violations, is a judge issuing fines and ordering an agency to pay a plaintiff’s legal bills.
The attorney general has the authority to file a civil lawsuit asking a judge to order a government agency to pay fines and attorney’s fees. That almost never happens, unfortunately. So it’s generally up to individuals and groups to file lawsuits on their own and hope judges later order violating government agencies to pay their legal bills.
That’s what the NEA did.
Glad PED has to pay
The Education Department can spew all the deflective rhetoric it wants, but the fact is that the state agency broke the law and created a mess that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
I’m grateful the teacher’s union aggressively pursued punishment. I’m glad PED has to pay.
If the Republican Party really believes Keller violated IPRA, it should also be glad for the NEA’s successful lawsuit. Hopefully, the ruling will help deter such shenanigans in the future.
It’s never appropriate for any government agency, regardless of whether it’s controlled by Democrats or Republicans, to play politics with public records.