New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission ‘wins’ Black Hole Award for transparency failures
Gideon Grudo, Freedom of Information Committee Chair, 918-991-8481, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rachel Semple, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, email@example.com
Editor's note: A previous version of this press release listed all additional nominees as finalists, including entities that were not selected as finalists. They have been removed from this version.
INDIANAPOLIS—Each year during Sunshine Week, the Society of Professional Journalists bestows the Black Hole Award upon government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know. Today, the sixth annual Black Hole Award is given to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.
Laura Paskus, a writer and radio producer in Albuquerque, nominated the Interstate Stream Commission because of its increasing secrecy during her 15 years covering it, particularly after the proposal of a diversion of the Gila River in New Mexico.
“The agency has been sued for Open Meetings Act violations, gives me plenty of hassles about releasing public documents, and for years now, has refused to answer my questions. Even the agency’s public information officer won’t return calls or answer emails” she wrote in her nomination letter. “Currently, there’s a bipartisan bill in the New Mexico State Legislature to make the agency more accountable in its spending on the proposed diversion. At the bill’s first committee hearing…, the ISC and members of the [Central Arizona Project] Entity opposed it.”
New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has refused to explain the source of water use data, insisting that numbers were accurate without any supporting evidence. Its transparency with spending has been questioned, leading to the bipartisan bill proposing required legislative authorization before money can be spent. The utter lack of open government efforts includes refusal to comment on the U.S. Supreme Court case involving Texas and New Mexico’s fight over the Rio Grande.
A quasi-governmental agency called the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, created by the ISC, has also proven disrespectful of citizen’s right to know. That state agency has no website nor state email addresses, and does not provide meeting minutes and agendas unless requested via email. It has also been sued for violations of the state Open Meetings Act.
“Making these sorts of heavy decisions and citing data to back those decisions but refusing to produce this data is ridiculous. Agencies should be transparent in their effects on publicly owned bodies, land or water” said Gideon Grudo, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. “They certainly shouldn’t be this aggressive to the press, either. Hats off to Laura Paskus for being persistent.”
Runners-up for the Black Hole Award:
Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority
The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority's lack of transparency began with the deal with the Minnesota Vikings and Zygi Wilf to build the U.S. Bank Stadium. In November, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune revealed that luxury suites were used by executives, board members, family and friends at taxpayer expense.
News outlets and a joint legislative committee were unable to get answers about suite use, why there were no records to release to the public and why a separate marketing firm was hired but not involved with the “potential customers” that were said to be in the luxury suites. Later, the Office of Legislative Auditor uncovered a third private suite, and stated it was unable to obtain sufficient information for its investigation. No information has been released about the purpose of the suites, how individuals were identified and invited, what taxpayer funds were spent for personal or political use and why data provided had discrepancies.
Arkansas state Senators Bart Hester and Gary Stubblefield
Freedom of Information Committee member and former SPJ President Sonny Albarado nominated these two Republican senators, each of whom has sponsored legislation in the 2017 General Assembly that would negatively affect the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Hester sponsored a bill adding a specific exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that broadly covers “attorney-client communication or attorney work product” without defining either. Stubblefield has sponsored several bills impacting FOIA, the two most significant exempting all security-related records. The bills would affect records for public schools, higher education institutions and the State Capital Police, including the number of security officers and their personnel information. None of the three bills has passed the legislate yet.
Each year, Black Hole Award nominations come from journalists, members of the public and open government advocates.
In the past, the Black Hole Award has been presented to the U.S. Virgin Islands government, the U.S. Forest Service and Oklahoma State University. View a complete list of winners here.
The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing such abuses, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee seeks to educate members of the public about their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with openness and transparency.
SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.