• Need a copy of a police report? It could take months longer than the law allows.
  • Detective DAN: What's being built on Rio Grande just north of The Range?
  • The July mini-library trek
  • Main Library stats hit post-pandemic high
Need a copy of a police report? It could take months longer than the law allows.
Requests for public records at the city have about tripled since 2016. The city clerk, who is in charge of releasing them, isn't sure why. Office of the City Clerk
The fourth week of February turned out to be an unusually violent one in Greater Downtown. That Tuesday evening, police officers closed streets near Old Town following a reported shooting that sent one man, Miguel Angelo Varela, to the hospital. Police managed to interview one witness before opening up the streets again. 

Two days later during the lunch hour, police were dispatched to an alley near Sixth and Central for another shooting, one that sent a man named Alfonso Abeyta to the hospital. Another man who, based on police records, appears to be a suspect, wound up at a Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department substation in the South Valley and was later transferred to a prisoner transport unit.

Because it is an ongoing investigation, many of the details in the cases have been redacted, but what we know about that harrowing week comes largely from two APD incident reports (here and here).

Getting ahold of those reports is supposed to be a fairly straightforward business. Make a formal request to a government agency, state law says, and whomever that authority has put in charge of such things "
shall permit the inspection immediately or as soon as is practicable under the circumstances, but not later than fifteen days after receiving a written request." Some jurisdictions, like Albuquerque, even set up a special portal to process requests more efficiently.

The transparency tool is essential for a wide variety of situations. Attorneys use it to get information that might be of use to their clients, be they alleged criminals or real estate developers. Individuals use it to obtain reports critical for processing insurance claims. It is also a favorite of journalists: DAN has used it many times, including last year for a report on where in Barelas and South Broadway the city was scouting around for land it might use for a soccer stadium.

But although DAN requested those police reports on the shootings just a couple of weeks after the fact - time enough, we thought, for a reasonable amount of dust to settle - it was not until June 2 that the city actually produced them, and even then it took the intervention of the state attorney general's office and City Clerk Ethan Watson.

Why? The system is overwhelmed, struggling to catch up amid the usual pandemic staffing problems, and facing an as-yet-inexplicable multi-year increase in total requests. The Office of the City Clerk, which coordinates with the rest of city government on the release of records, had 3,728 requests to process in all of 2016, but that has edged up every year since and in 2021 stood at 10,201.

While the median response time is actually 15 days, Watson told DAN, police records are often delayed months beyond that because they frequently require extra back-and-forth in order to redact information that could compromise an ongoing investigation. More straightforward documents tend to take much less time.

The clerk's office has lately taken to classifying backlogged requests as "broad and burdensome," a designation in the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) that gives governments more time to deal with large and particularly time-consuming queries.

(That categorization, given to two short and very specific incident reports, prompted DAN to file a complaint with the state attorney general, which is in charge of enforcing the records law. That complaint brought Watson into the mix personally. With the documents released, DAN withdrew the complaint.)

"Broad and burdensome" has become something of a standard response across the state, regardless of whether a request remotely fits the description, said Shannon Kunkel, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. She added that "it's not the standard of the law."

Some degree of patience may be warranted given staffing issues, Kunkel said, allowing that "Mr. Watson is one who tries to do the right thing when it comes to transparency."

But that patience doesn't run very deep: "This is a central function of government," she added. "Perhaps there needs to be more of a sense of urgency."

For his part, Watson believes things are getting back on track. His office hired temporary staff to help with the backlog, which is going down. And at his request, the mayor and council added two new permanent positions in the recently-approved city budget.

"My goal is to significantly bring down the volume of requests by the end of the year," Watson said. "If we keep on our current trajectory, we'll be there."

These are, if nothing else, pretty weird times in which to be a city clerk. The volume of requests has been going up for years, and nobody is quite sure why. There was also a notable increase in the summer of 2020, as if people cooped up at home suddenly discovered a key tool to ensure government transparency right along with sourdough bread, Zoom happy hour, and street racing.

"I don't know what happened," Watson said. "IPRA doesn't really address how you're supposed to handle a pandemic."
Detective DAN: What's being built on Rio Grande just north of the Range?
Construction is happening in the area shaded in red, but all of the highlighted properties are controlled by the family behind Garcia Automotive Group.
Alert Reader Ed writes in:

I see the start of construction and was wondering what is going on in the empty lot on the north side of The Range Café on Rio Grande near I-40.

We've heard from others who are curious about this one, too, but unfortunately not much is public knowledge. Insight Construction, the firm doing the building, deferred comment to owner Ed Garcia, who with his brother, Carlos, is the main public representative of the family's extensive real estate and development work. Ed Garcia didn't return a message seeking comment, which is somewhat unusual for developers but not for the Garcias, who tend to comment on their projects only sporadically (DAN, 6/29/22). 

Most of what we do know comes from city building permit data, which says the work involves a commercial building going up on a 2.87-acre site. The building's square footage is listed as 4,486. That's roughly as big as the building that houses The Range - another Garcia property.

What ultimately happens on that one parcel is all the more interesting because of how it may or may not fit together with the other extensive Garcia family holdings in the area, which include several acres to the east of the Alameda Drain (see map above). Of that chunk, much of the northern half carries a zoning classification called R-ML, which allows low-density apartments. The bottom half, which fronts I-40, is zoned MX-M, which allows "
a wide array of moderate-intensity retail, commercial, institutional and moderate-density residential uses," according to this city writeup.

Garcia has previously expressed interest in putting together "a high quality, mixed-use development, including a grocery store and infill housing," there but that information is five years old and came as part of an ultimately successful effort to change the zoning on the property.
July's mini-library trek
At Fourteenth and Orchard (Downtown Neighborhoods), we found Orwell's classic "1984," a memoir of life in Soviet-dominated Albania by Lea Ypi, and a 1943 book called "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," a novel about growing up in what were then the slums of the Williamsburg neighborhood.
A few blocks away at Orchard and Sixteenth (Downtown Neighborhoods again), we found "The Possessed," an exploration of Russian literature and the people who devour it, "The Surrender Tree," an account of late-1800s Cuban history, and in case you're looking to get away, a guide to taking cruises in Alaska's Inside Passage.
At Fourteenth and Park (Raynolds), "The West Without Water" (a perhaps all-too-timely book for a month when the Rio Grande is drying up before our eyes), "The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes," and Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography "Master of the Senate."
There's a new mini on Roma about a block east of Mary Fox Park. We've added it to our big map, which is here.
Foot traffic and checkouts at the Main Library hit new highs in June as part of a fits-and-starts recovery that's been going on for about year and a half. Checkouts actually beat the June 2019 number, but the library was closed for much of that month while it got new carpeting.
Missed the last Downtown Forward Plan presentation? It's happening again today at the ECHO meeting.
Details on how to join the 1 p.m. meeting here. DAN's previous coverage of the Downtown Forward Plan is here:
Valley policing council to discuss mental health panel tonight
It'll be at 6 p.m. at the Johnny Tapia Community Center in Wells Park or online. Details here.
Downtown Albuquerque News covers Downtown, Old Town, and surrounding neighborhoods. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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