Catch some sunshine

NMFOG Celebrates Sunshine Week 2020

Melanie J. Majors
FOG Executive Director

Democracy depends on a transparent government, yet despite the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) and the Open Meetings Act (OMA) — laws ensuring the public’s right to learn about their government through access to public records and public meetings — some government officials still regularly ignore the law.

As the nation celebrates Sunshine Week, a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and secrecy, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) wants every New Mexican to remember that open, accountable government is the cornerstone of our democracy.   

The Sunshine Week celebration coincides with the birthday of James Madison, fourth president of the United States and a father of the U.S. Constitution. Madison was a key proponent of the Bill of Rights and the five rights the First Amendment protects – speech, press, assembly, religion and petition of our government.

One of the most important ideas that underpin the First Amendment is the ability to criticize the government and our public officials.  How can we criticize or evaluate government actions if we don’t have access to meetings or records? 

In the Legislative session that just ended, one of the most vital pieces of business was enacted mostly occurred behind closed doors – the creation of the state’s budget – the taxpayer’s money. 

To quote the Senate and House joint rules book, “There is no more important task for the Legislature than to devise a budget and allocate the state’s resources.” 

Yet historically many of those budgetary meetings have occurred behind closed doors, shutting out not only the public but even legislators from the process.  One representative pointed out that influential and top-secret meetings sometimes even exclude other finance committee members.

This is just one example of secrecy.  Why is it necessary? Lawmakers and elected officials should be eager, not afraid, to have their constituents view the hard choices that need to be made among competing interests. Openness may breed disappointment about the final decision, but it also breeds trust in government and the democratic process.

Tax dollars fund government and New Mexicans have the right to see what city, county, school, village, and state officials see. Public documents are the public’s business — from court files to police reports to lists of those who apply for fishing licenses.  And, New Mexicans have the right to attend public meetings, even the ones classified as workshops or retreats.

This Sunshine Week pledge to commit to letting the sun in and remind public officials to be respectful of IPRA and OMA.  Keep pushing for more access to records, meetings and legislative committees.  Consider joining FOG in our mission of protecting your right to know.  Help us address your issues or questionswhen trying to access information from a governmental entity.  Let us know if you have concerns about government and join us in making sure everyone follows our state’s transparency laws, among the strongest in the nation.

Catch some sunlight this week and together, we can bring 365 days of sunshine to New Mexico.  Open government is good government.

Sunshine Week Spotlights Our Role in Good Governance 2019

By Lucas Peerman, news director for the Las Cruces Sun-News and a board member for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government

You pay taxes for governments to work in the best interests of your community. Sometimes these governments do; sometimes they don’t. But how can you know?

For example: Where’s the money to fix that pothole that you’ve nicknamed “Alaska?” Who has applied for that school superintendent position so crucial to your children’s education? Why hasn’t your cousin received the government services promised? What, exactly, are your taxes paying for?

You are entitled to know the answers to these questions, and that knowledge will empower you. That’s how a democracy works. This week we celebrate our right to this knowledge through Sunshine Week, March 10 through 16 — an ideal time as the New Mexico Legislature heads into the final week of deliberations. Your rights to hold governments accountable are in part covered in the state’s Sunshine Laws: The Inspection of Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. Get to know these statutes.

These acts help ensure our rights to hold governments accountable by advocating all necessary records and public meetings be open and accessible.

This year, lawmakers proposed at least seven bills the Albuquerque Journal called “depressing” in a Feb. 3 editorial highlighting measures that sought to put barriers between you and information. The proposals would increase costs for public records, allow the expungement of criminal court records, limit the public’s ability to identify candidates for government positions and other measures that keep taxpayers in the dark.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, New Mexico Ethics Watch, Common Cause New Mexico and similar organizations consistently shine a light on governments that would rather operate behind closed doors. This Sunshine Week, we acknowledge the work that these organizations do to ensure your lawful access to government information.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government hotline at 1-505-764-3750 answers hundreds of questions a year from citizens, government employees and even elected officials. The Hotline is also a valuable resource if you are aware of a government violation.

News media have traditionally held a role in society as government watchdogs. It’s the reason the Fourth Estate exists. However, the number of journalists is in decline.

Bob Moore, the former El Paso Times editor who left the company in 2017 amid a round of layoffs, recently tweeted: “Something to chew on: In 2000, federal Occupational Employment Statistics said El Paso (my home) had 130 ‘news analysts, reporters and correspondents’ and 130 ‘public relations specialists.’ In 2017 OES El Paso data, reporters and correspondents is 50 and PR specialists is 400.”

This story repeats itself in far too many cities.

“Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication,” the Associated Press reported this week. “It leaves readers in the dark and emboldens elected officials to sign off on higher wages, larger payrolls and ballooning budget deficits, their study found.”

News media and open government advocates will continue to press for more government transparency. Statistics may point to fewer of us, but those numbers are misleading when it comes to transparency. It doesn’t count you, the taxpayer. You care about wasteful spending. You care about corrupt officials. You care about being left in the dark. You have the same access to information as we do.

This Sunshine Week, learn about your rights. Request a public document. Demand transparency. It’s in your best interest.