Don’t put our sunshine laws in the shade

Elected officials and candidates love to proclaim themselves to be “pro-open government.” That’s a little like being “pro-education” or “pro-family.” The sentiment is nice and sounds great in a speech, but can mean little in reality.

Sunshine Week is March 15-21. This national initiative is designed to bring better awareness of the importance of open government.

Here at home, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is also celebrating its 25th anniversary as the only organization in our state solely dedicated to protecting your right to know. Our mission is to make sure that our public officials comply with our state’s sunshine laws – the Inspection of Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act.

Unfortunately, the FOG finds that some of our public officials claim they are in favor of open government, but don’t act that way. The FOG runs a hotline for citizens needing assistance with obtaining access to public records or open meetings and we often find that government entities in New Mexico either don’t know their responsibilities under our sunshine laws or choose to ignore them.

Furthermore, the FOG has spent much of the current legislative session fighting attempts by lawmakers and others to diminish our sunshine laws in ways that limit access to public records.

Some proposals would significantly increase the type of public records that are excluded from public inspection. Others would raise the cost of records in a way that makes them too expensive for a citizen to obtain.

The FOG has also met surprising opposition to its own effort to modify our Open Meetings Act to ensure that the public has a right to be heard at every public meeting. Why would any government official seek to limit a citizen’s right to be heard?

We need to remember the fundamental purpose of our state’s sunshine laws. Nearly 40 years ago, our state Supreme Court stated that “a citizen has a fundamental right to have access to public records. The citizen’s right to know is the rule, and secrecy is the exception.”

As citizens of a representative democracy, we each have the right to question our leaders. In order to engage in meaningful discourse, we must have accurate information about the workings of our government and an opportunity to participate.

The First Amendment guarantees our freedom of speech, but that right is an empty one without adequate knowledge of our government’s actions.

Secrecy has dire consequences in a democracy. Confidence in our political process erodes when government fails to conduct its business in the open.

When the actions of our elected officials are concealed and shrouded in secrecy, citizens cannot effectively hold government accountable. In darkness, voters become disillusioned and apathetic.

Furthermore, our free-market economy is reliant on the notion that businesses are able to compete on a level playing field. That includes business with the government. Inequities in government business contracts and negotiations quickly cause consumers and investors to lose faith.

When cronyism and backroom dealings are permitted or ignored, our state suffers. To attract job creators and spark economic growth, New Mexico must demonstrate its commitment to fairness and transparency.

So let’s all make sure that open government in New Mexico is more than just talk.

Gregory P. Williams is an attorney in private practice.

Thank you to the Albuquerque Journal, our 2015 partner in sunshine!