Department of Distress: SOS on-line woes continue

What’s going on at the Secretary of State’s office?

sos1No, I’m not referring to this.

Infuriating as that is, it’s old news.

No, I’m talking about backlogs in posting public records online and barriers to access for people who are searching for those records.

Legislators, election observers and advocates for good government have been complaining about the efficiency of the SOS electronic filing system since it was instituted.

And I’m here to tell you:  It hasn’t gotten any better during the current legislative session.

I know this because of my personal experience with the office and because of the constant complaints I hear from reporters who frequent the SOS office and are grimly familiar with the roadblocks it throws up for anyone seeking public records.

That really bothers me, because if skilled, paid searchers have problems getting the documents they came for, what chance does the average New Mexican have?

My Story

I made a special trip to the Secretary of State’s office in Santa Fe on Feb. 12.

I was looking for expense reports filed by registered SunCal lobbyists that would reflect the fact that the California-based development company had spent thousands on advertising in favor of legislation that would call for using tax increment development districts, or TIDDS, to finance a huge development on Albuquerque’s West Mesa.

According to the Lobbyist Regulation Act, such expenditures, when made during a legislative session, must be reported within 48 hours.

I had looked for those records on the SOS website and didn’t find them. Given the inefficient history of the SOS online posting system, I wanted to go directly to the source to make sure they weren’t simply filed but not yet posted.

When I got there, I was told that everything the office had received was posted online. (This despite the fact that I knew about certain other reports that had been turned in but DIDN’T show up on the website.) Then I was told that I would need to submit a written, signed letter requesting the records I was seeking, which I could fax, or email or deliver in person. Again, I was assured that the records I was looking for were all online. And I was told that if I expected to show up in person and have an SOS staffer search for anything above and beyond that, I should have made an appointment.

The Plot Thickens?

Maybe my rough reception was due to the fact that earlier that same day, a private citizen named Lora Lucero had visited the office looking for exactly the same documents – and filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office against SunCal when she didn’t find them.  I found that out the next day, when I read about it in the New Mexican.

About one week later, I read (also in the New Mexican) that the Secretary of State’s office ruled that SunCal doesn’t have to file a report for its TIDD advertising campaign until 15 days after the session ends.

Huh? Why does SunCal get a break from lobbying requirements?

What the SOS Says

All the anomalies I found had me more curious than ever about the ways of the Secretary of State’s office.  So I checked around with others who’ve tried to get public documents from that office and discovered a litany of complaints, ranging from tales of unposted, delayed or incomplete lobbyist reports and vote tallies to the fact that the website is often just plain inoperable.

I asked Secretary of State office spokesman James Flores about those complaints.

Flores said it is hard for the office to provide search assistance during the legislature, since staff is often attending committee meetings and tracking legislation.

Flores said all records are posted online as soon as the office receives them.

And he said the office “continues to work on” keeping the website easy to use.

It’s The Law

I know that there has been resistance by some candidates and legislators to electronic filing. But electronic filing IS the law.

I think people who are required to file lobbyist reports should expect that the Secretary of State’s office will post those reports promptly and publicly. I think that people who are looking for those reports should be able to find them easily, and not have to jump through hoops to do so. That goes for reporters as well as your average citizen who isn’t getting paid to travel to Santa Fe and search for records.

Sadly, what’s been happening during this legislative session shows there’s still a lot of work to be done to improve service at the SOS office.

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