Editor’s note: this editorial was published Sept. 27, 2018. Senate Bill 259 is now moving through the legislature. It would make secret all applicants to public positions. The “possible open door” referred to at the end of the editorial has already been opened.
There is one thing proponents of open government can count on a few months before a long (90-day) session of the state legislature. Some group will start working on legislators to add to the list of exceptions in the Inspection of Public Records Act applications for a public position.
Sometimes it’s the city manager position, or maybe a county manager.
This year Albuquerque Public Schools is looking for the legislature to make superintendent applications secret.
This comes as no surprise and the reasons are the same ones used by prior groups trying to conduct the public’s work in secret. The popular reasons to close applications for any public position are:
• the best candidates won’t apply because they don’t want their current boss to know they’re looking;
• the best candidates don’t want their resumes (also thought to be personal information) released to the public;
• the best candidates don’t want anyone poking into their past.
None of these hold water. All of the above-listed titles are public positions. They work for us, the taxpayers.
They’re also very important, key, positions. A school district can flourish or wither under a superintendent. Witness the damage Eric Martinez did in his short time as superintendent of the Española School District. Look how far Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez has brought us after Martinez’ colossal failure.
The only thing keeping many public bodies from hiring cronies, family or political operatives to a key position is that the applications and hiring process must be done publicly.
All applications are public records. The interview process is done in private but results are public, scoring sheets are public. Many public entities will even interview the final candidates in public.
One of the most telling public interviews we’ve witnessed was the 2016 hire of Rick Bailey Jr. to the presidency of Northern New Mexico College. All three candidates fielded questions from the audience and Bailey was head and shoulders above the other two candidates.
Had the Board of Regents not hired Bailey, there would have been a huge backlash from College staff and the community. They knew, they were there, they participated and were convinced.
Albuquerque Public Schools is one of the largest school districts in the country. Its leader must be phenomenal for the district to thrive. Anyone applying for that position is not going to be deterred by the openness of New Mexico’s public records laws. If they’re good enough to be hired by Albuquerque, their boss back home isn’t going to fire them for looking. They’ll probably throw more money at them to stay.
As with other groups trying to add one itsy-bitsy exception to the Act, this would be the exception that would open the door for all other positions. It would be easy to make the argument that if superintendent applications are secret, so should coach applications, or city manager or human resource director.
This is a bad idea that goes against what the legislature intended the Act to do: keep hirings in the open. Nothing good comes from secret hires, meetings, decisions or documents.
Legislators need to send a resounding “no” to Albuquerque Public Schools, with the message: do the public’s work in plain view.