New Mexico open government group marks 25th birthday

Article by By Olivier Uyttebrouck / Journal Staff Writer

Casting a light on the public’s business – by opening records and meetings – has been the goal of the nonprofit New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Either by persuasion or through legal action, the nonpartisan group has battled on issues ranging from opening up the search process for top positions at universities and government agencies to making public certain police records to guaranteeing access to electronic versions of public records.

Journalists and other open-government advocates formed the NM Foundation for Open Government in December 1990 with the intent of creating a broad coalition to improve public access to government records and meetings.

“The idea was to have an organization that was available to make sure that the public’s right to know is protected,” said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, a retired lawyer who often represented FOG.

NMFOG has won key legal victories by selectively pursuing court cases, Dines said.

The foundation has had a “high success rate in the courtroom in cases it has selected to pursue,” he said. “It has established a lot of law that has opened the door, if you will, on public records and open meetings.”

NMFOG members often perform seminars around the state to educate public officials and citizens about their rights and duties under state laws.

It also operates a hotline that fields some 500 calls a year from people with questions about access to meetings and records.

Nearly half of calls are from ordinary citizens, and many are from government officials who, in some cases, are concerned about the actions of boards and agencies, said Susan Boe, executive director of NMFOG.

“Sometimes, we are their last resort,” Boe said of callers. “We say we’re the leading transparency organization, but we may be the only transparency organization in the state.”

It has become one of the most active such organizations in the nation and nonprofits in other states are emulating its policies.

Robert Johnson, a retired Associated Press editor, served as the foundation’s executive director from its founding until his death in 2007 at age 84.

“He took no prisoners,” Boe said of Johnson. “He just really built this organization and loved it, and was the backbone and the driving force.”

The original board of directors were the late William S. Dixon, an attorney; now-Journal editor Kent Walz; the late Robert Trapp Sr., publisher and owner of the Rio Grande Sun; and Bob Richardson, then manager of KOB-TV.

Just weeks after incorporation, NMFOG took up the fight to keep University of New Mexico presidential searches open to the public.

NMFOG and others filed a lawsuit against UNM seeking the names of candidates for university president. The Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque Tribune and KOB-TV joined as plaintiffs. The case gave the foundation instant recognition as a champion of open government, said Dines, the attorney who tried the case.

Two days into a trial in April 1991, the case was settled when UNM agreed to disclose the names of candidates scheduled for interviews in future searches.

The UNM case was the first of many legal actions the foundation has initiated over the years to expand access to public records and meetings.

Another key victory came after the city of Farmington refused to turn over all applications from a 2007 search for a new city manager, Dines said.

Farmington released the applications after the Court of Appeals in 2009 upheld lower-court rulings in favor of a lawsuit filed by NMFOG and the Farmington Daily Times demanding their release. The city was also ordered to pay the Daily Times $90,000 to cover legal expenses.

Boe said a dedicated group of attorneys volunteer their time to take on First Amendment issues.

“I am just amazed by the amount of volunteer legal work we get from our legal panel,” she said. “If we have a case, I ask for volunteers, and somebody always steps up.”

NMFOG also has a 24-member board of directors – made up of journalists, attorneys, business people and nonprofit representatives – who volunteer their time.

“I would characterize our board as the entire political spectrum,” Boe said. “Sometimes, the board disagrees, but I feel it’s very respectful.”

The organization recently celebrated its anniversary at its annual First Amendment Bill Dixon luncheon, where several people received the group’s top honor for open government, the Dixon First Amendment Award. The four recipients and their categories are:

  • Kent Walz, Lifetime Achievement
  • Peter St. Cyr, Journalism
  • Chad Painter, Education
  • Mark Leech, Government

NMFOG Milestones

  • FOG’s hotline has fielded roughly 500 calls a year for the past 20 years from people with questions about access to meetings and records. The number is 1-888-843-9121.
  • In 2011, FOG helped pass legislation to guarantee access to electronic versions of public records, modernizing the Inspection of Public Records Act.
  • In 2010 and 2011, FOG helped secure creation and expansion of the New Mexico Sunshine Portal, which contains information about state budgets and salaries, lauded as one of the nation’s best.
  • In 2009, FOG joined the Farmington Daily Times in a lawsuit seeking applications from candidates for Farmington’s search for a city manager. The state Court of Appeals upheld lower-court rulings that required Farmington to release the applications and pay the Daily Times $90,000 for legal expenses.
  • In 2007, FOG joined four newspapers in a lawsuit to gain access to police investigative records from an officer-involved shooting. A settlement agreement defined which State Police records are open to public inspection, and sets out requirements for managing and providing records.
  • In more than 70 instances, the New Mexico Attorney General has agreed with FOG on complaints of violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

See the story as it appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.