Media organizations, grassroots activists, many non-profits and some hardy citizens celebrated openness in government last week.
Sunshine week (March 12-18) has become a week when those of us who fight government all year take the time to take stock of our accomplishments, maybe pat each other on the back and revel in the sunshine beaming upon those looking for access to their governments.
It’s a backward celebration. In this republic, and the state of New Mexico, there should be no one fighting for access to their government and the public’s records held therein. But here we are with some organizations’, such as the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG), whose sole purpose is to fight for access to records and meetings.
Last week in this space we wrote about Rick Herrera’s right to sit in a school board meeting. That argument was judicially settled in the cities of Albuquerque and Truth or Consequences. Herrera should have an easy slog of regaining the access granted to him by the state’s constitution and laws.
Those of us who seek sunshine survived another 60-day legislature. These are always dicey and groups such as FOG, Common Cause and Think New Mexico must create several strategies before a long session because no one knows what nonsense our legislators will throw at the public. This year was a banner year for those working hard to close government to the public.
A bill annually pushed by former Gov. Garrey Carruthers to keep names secret of those applying to public positions, came out early and those representing the public’s right to know got it tabled quickly. It will be back. New Mexico State University officials really want those names withheld from public view.
Two bills were introduced to allegedly protect companies’ work product, or patent information and processes, from public view by adding exceptions to the Inspection of Public Records Act. This is already protected in other laws the FOG was successful in moving both of them away from creating yet another exception to the Act.
Another Senate bill flew through both chambers and sits on the governor’s desk. If signed it will make secret the names of victims and witnesses in six different sex crimes, until someone is charged. This was sold by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Bernalillo, on a “poor rape victims” soap box. It protects poor police work, more than anything. No media outlet in the state names rape victims. We only name witnesses with their permission.
We were very disappointed to see all of our local legislators took the bait, and voted in favor of closing more records.
Voters will decide in November 2018 whether they would like an independent commission looking into alleged bad behavior by New Mexico’s elected officials.
Rep. Jim Dines, (R-Bernalillo) is in his second term and did the gargantuan lifting for this Joint Memorial. HJR 8 creates a commission composed of seven people chosen by the governor and several key legislative positions. The bill became diluted as it moved through the House and Senate but it’s a start and can be strengthened later.
Thirty-seven other states have such commissions. Legislators here have been very reluctant to even discuss the idea. They say they fear false accusations during election season. The public, which has overwhelmingly supported such a commission for years, believes legislators just don’t want to be held accountable.
A big win outside the slowly grinding wheels of law-making came from the State Supreme Court last fall when it decided the courts will trust lawyers and journalists with court documents through computer software called Odyssey. It is the software New Mexico uses to track all court cases electronically.
This gives us full electronic access to all documents in a case and allows us to provide the public with more and better information regarding arrests and the subsequent court process. We take the trust placed upon us by the courts very seriously and will abide by all rules and standards.
So those fighting the good fight took some hits but we gained a little access and may get to hold bad elected officials more accountable in the near future. We’ll be optimistic and call it a winning session.