We have the right to know

In the interesting and trying days that are upon us it seems that everyone has an opinion of our federal, state and even local governments and are more than willing to share that opinion.

While these discussions make for exciting dinner conversation, it seems that citizens have forgotten we have a “right to know” what our government is planning and the actions they are contemplating or may have already taken. As citizens of the United States and of New Mexico we have the right to know the business and the actions of elected (and oft-times appointed) boards, commissions, councils, school boards and any other elected or taxpayers supported entity.

We don’t have to rely on gossip to address actions of our government – we have the right to attend open meetings and the right to access public records. In fact, a request for public records costs nothing if a citizen is inspecting them. A cost incurs when copies are made of the record. We should expect that every consideration be given us by our government and that it ensures an easy pathway to access public records or to understand the actions of our elected entities.

We have the right to know
Kathi Bearden former FOG president

While New Mexico declares it wants an “informed electorate” in the open meetings act, many times elected officials aren’t aware of this responsibility. They sometimes forget that they cannot discuss government business between elected officials. They may forget that conversations they have about government business is not privileged. They may think that they are clever when they delete texts that pertain to the people’s business because it is just easier or perhaps they think they are more in-the-know that the average citizen.

They are wrong. An elected official (or appointed by government) has a higher responsibility to open government than anyone else in our state, including state employees.

New Mexico is a friendly state and officials have to carefully walk the line to separate government business from casual conversations with friends. They should understand that if anyone begins asking questions, giving advice, or any conversations that aren’t purely personal, it may be government business.

As the New Mexico open meeting act states, “The formation of public policy or the conduct of business by vote shall not be conducted in closed meetings.” This isn’t hard to understand. A transparent government is a good government and is the foundation of our democracy. We have the right and the duty to protect a transparent government and we have the right and the duty to expect one as well.

We have many elected officials in our state that understand their responsibility to an informed electorate. They are accessible and fight for transparency. Government staff generally do a great job providing records for citizens. In fact, many entities are digitizing records so that New Mexicans have easier and greater access to records.

Unfortunately, we read far too often about a roadblock to a citizen who wants to speak at a meeting or wants to see a public record. The Foundation for Open Government hotline gets many calls and questions from individuals who have been denied access to their government and provides advice and direction free of charge.

We must remember that we have a right to expect transparent government. Our democracy demands it to stay healthy and strong. We can come armed to the dinner conversations with information and facts as well as our right to free speech, our opinions.

“Be Afraid of the Dark. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Transparency is the Key to Democracy Project ”  The project concentrates on the two most essential principles of democracy, without which self-governance would be impossible – accountability and transparency.

Kathi Bearden is former publisher of the Hobbs-News, a Dixon Award recipient and former president of the NMFOG board of directors.