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Candidates for governor support sunshine law

Candidates for New Mexico governor, from left, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Jeff Apodaca, Peter DeBenedittis and state Sen. Joe Cervantes appear at a New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Forum held at the KNME-TV on Sunday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeff Apodaca

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes

Government information belongs to the people, all five candidates for governor agree, but their opinions differed as to how much privacy should be given to individuals who interact with the government.

In a public forum at KNME on Sunday sponsored by the Foundation for Open Government, the candidates said more files should be available online and cost should not stop the public from accessing records.

It was the first in-person forum involving all five candidates: Democrats U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Jeff Apodaca, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, Peter DeBenedittis and lone Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce.

Very few issues arose that drew out dissent among the group, which agreed that legislators and government officials should be held accountable through a transparent ethics process.

Pearce thinks such a process should also apply to staff.

“Many times you have the capability for … mischief to be done, for wrongdoing to occur at the staff level as well as the elected official level,” he said.

And they agreed that documents created by government agencies should be available free or at low cost to the public without much fuss.

“If you are denying access because people have an inability to pay for copies or administrative time then you’re not meeting the spirit of sunshine laws or transparent government,” Lujan Grisham said.

The forum marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, which highlights the public’s right to government information.

The group even agreed that more openness is necessary in what has historically been one of the most secretive processes in New Mexico government: capital outlay funding in which legislators secure money for projects but aren’t required to disclose their final allocations.

But the group’s opinions varied when it comes to whether applications for state positions should be publicly available. Some people who believe the names should be secret argue that the practice may deter some qualified potential hires from applying.

Deterring some was a “chance we’re going to have to take,” Cervantes argued.

“Look, open and transparent government sometimes makes it harder for us to do some things,” he said. “But nonetheless I’ve always supported that transparency, because in the end it gives us the better government.”

Peter DeBenedittis

Although it can be awkward to apply for a job knowing your current employer might find out, Pearce said, the open policy should stay in place.

“At the end of the day, there is so much distrust of the government right now, the more transparent we can get, the better off we are,” he said.

Lujan Grisham said that approach can have unintended consequences and pointed out that some places choose not to disclose names right away, an idea she said was worth considering.

“As soon as the hire is made, you disclose everything in the process,” she said.

Apodaca, a former television executive from Albuquerque, suggested a “hybrid” approach in which only the names of candidates who make it to the final rounds of hiring would be made public.

“We want the best people to work in our government,” he said. “We want to hire the best people. Some of the best people will want to stay private.”

DeBenedittis, a political newcomer from Santa Fe, dismissed the idea that an open process would deter solid candidates from applying.

“Folks who say, ‘oh well the best people won’t get there,’ ” he said. “The best people who have secrets to keep won’t get there.”

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce

Databases created by state agencies and licensed to businesses were also controversial. Moderators asked whether the state should prioritize maximizing revenue or public availability of government information.

Cervantes answered the question as it applies to banks of information compiled by the Department of Motor Vehicles. He said private companies want access to that information as a marketing tool. He said the public has some expectation of privacy and the answer is not black and white.

Pearce said the collection of that private data itself can be alarming, and it should never be used for revenue generation.

DeBenedittis, repeating his mantra “public is public,” argued that charging for access to such information would make it available only to the wealthy.

Lujan Grisham said putting a price on government information would keep it closed and secret, and that doesn’t benefit the citizens. And Apodaca said funding technology to streamline access to data should be a priority.

As the state Supreme Court weighs a series of rule changes that would make juvenile criminal court records secret, Cervantes, Apodaca and DeBenedittis said they believe juvenile records involving serious crimes should stay open. Lujan Grisham and Pearce said certain caveats should apply.

The forum came one day after the state’s Democratic Party convention, at which Lujan Grisham won 66.9 percent of party delegate votes, followed by Apodaca, Cervantes and DeBenedittis. DeBenedittis threw his support behind Apodaca but has not officially withdrawn from the race. Lujan Grisham and Apodaca are assured spots on the June 5 primary election ballot, and the other candidates must secure more signatures to secure a ballot spot.