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Transparency laws must keep up with government

Peter Goodman


 The annual Sunshine Week, celebrated around John Madison’s birthday, is a fine time to contemplate how press freedoms – and freedom of information generally – are faring.

The First Amendment is first for a reason. As New Mexico law confirms, because democracy depends on an informed electorate, we’re each “entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of governments and official acts.” Therefore “formation of public policy or conduct of business by vote” must be in open meetings, to which we’re all invited. We have the right to inspect our documents (created, received, and/or modified on our behalf by our public servants), with very limited exceptions that protect personal privacy or allow our servants to form strategies for litigation or negotiations without having to share those strategies with folks their negotiating with or arguing against in court.

The laws require public servants to do their best to provide us with full information. (Unless we know what they know, how can we fully and fairly assess their decisions?) As life and governments grow more complex, complete compliance with the law does too. Technologies like ZOOM, the Internet, and better video systems and microphones both facilitate compliance and create new tasks and obligations. Doing the minimum tasks specified (in laws written before many technological improvements, doesn’t cut it.

A few developments during the current legislative session slightly clouds the sunshine requirement.

First, they’re finally caving to the desire of administrators to keep confidential the names of applicants for key positions. Sorry, but I’ve seen too many bad hires, some of which could have been prevented. Investigating candidates’ backgrounds, I’ve found things local officials should have found but didn’t. An informed citizenry can actually help public officials hire the best candidate. That outweighs the fear that some promising candidates will hold back if their names are known, not wanting to offend current employers. Hiring behind closed doors also could return us to “old-boy networks” and ethnic or gender discrimination.

Second, schools blocked a move to identify school-board candidates’ campaign contributors publicly. We require that of presidential, municipal, and judicial candidates. In a non-partisan” school-board election, voters especially need that contributors list. Choosing between Democrat and Republican, most of us can make savvy guesses about who’s funding each and where they stand on many issues. Suppose two school-board candidates both promise they’ll maintain solid arts and theater programs, or to run the schools with heightened care regarding climate and environmental issues. They both sound great. I vote for Joe, not knowing he’s backed by Exxon and by local citizens clamoring to cut “frills.” So what’s the excuse for keeping contributors’ names secret? To keep the thing non-partisan? When some board members need security assistance to leave safely after a meeting where citizens complained of “Critical Race Theory,” you’re gonna prattle about maintaining non-partisanship?

Locally, ours isn’t the worst city regarding openness, but it could do better. The city routinely breaks the law when withholding videos of police shootings, for example, by delaying public access without a legal excuse. When firing Greg Ewing, LCPSD broke the law until threatened with suit.

This coming Thursday, the local Sunshine Week celebration will feature a panel discussion of “Crime Reporting and the Public Interest” in NMSU’s Branson Library’s First Floor Atrium (1305 Frenger Mall), at 4-5 pm. Panelists include Searchlight’s New Mexico's Joshua Bowling, the Sun-News’s Justin Garcia, Robert Moore (El Paso Matters), and Dan Trujillo, public information officer for LCPD.

It’s an important issue.

Peter Goodman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.