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Editorial: Several bills in Roundhouse threaten keeping NM government open and the public informed

Observers are fond of saying there is a new political climate in Santa Fe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include a promising forecast for sunshine in government. To the contrary, there has been a rush of legislative proposals that would chip away at transparency and the public’s right to know.

For example, various legislative offerings would give bureaucrats the right to charge “market rate” for public information, turn back the clock on virtually all government hiring by making applicant pools secret except for three finalists, and erase criminal histories. Meanwhile, there is a move afoot to turn the Ethics Commission that voters approved via constitutional amendment last fall into the kind of secret body that transparency advocates had been assured wouldn’t happen. Talk about a bait and switch.

New Mexico Ethics Watch, chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson, and Common Cause say transparency is vital when it comes to complaints and process regarding the Ethics Commission. Lawmakers should heed their advice. The bills rolling back transparency – which is integral to accountability – are depressing and include:

⋄  Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, has introduced SB 259 to limit public inspection to three finalists for virtually any government “executive position.” That would be things like city manager, school superintendent and so on. It would mark a return to the bad old days when things were done in back rooms by political cronies with the public shut out, when jobs were created for relatives and pals while taxpayers were relegated to picking up the tab. New Mexico has evolved to a remarkably open system when it comes to applications and resumes. Tallman’s bill would reverse that.

⋄  Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, wants public agencies to be able to block release of public records in some circumstances and charge “market rate” on commercial requests. SB 232 also allows bureaucrats to interrogate people making IPRA requests about why they want the records. Executive Director Melanie Majors of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government says the legislation is a “disaster for the public and for the citizens of our state.”

⋄  Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, has introduced SB 381 to prohibit the release of an email address and “any other unique identifier from which the identity of a person may be reasonably inferred by direct or indirect means.” What? As written, the legislation would add the new restrictions to the list of things that make sense to keep private, like Social Security and bank account numbers. Such a broadening of the restrictions completely subverts IPRA by turning a transparency statute into a government data-security mandate. In fact, it would seem to call for redacting the names of all human beings.

⋄  Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, in HB 141 would prohibit state agency employees from disclosing “sensitive personal information” – including a person’s name, if they receive public assistance or have been the victim of a crime – to anyone outside the agency “unless necessary to the function of the state agency, required by court order or subpoena or as required by federal law.”

⋄  Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, in SB 118 would require redaction of police records to remove identifying information of alleged victims and non-police witnesses in connection with several crimes, including sexual assault and stalking. This bill would cover up poor police work. The information has been available but typically not reported by news media for years. Defendants have access to it through the criminal justice process.

⋄  Reps. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque and Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, and Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, have introduced HB 370, a sweeping criminal record expungement act. It allows a court to expunge records in most cases, excluding DWI, and includes cases in which people are released without a conviction, sent to a pre-prosecution diversion program, even convicted after serving their sentence – including for first-degree felonies. What does expungement mean? “Proceedings shall be treated as if they never occurred,” and officials may say “no record exists with respect to the person.”

It’s one thing to find a way to protect victims of identity theft and those wrongfully convicted. Providing a way to completely rewrite history and keep the public in the dark about misdeeds of prospective employees, neighbors, etc. is another.

⋄  Romero also introduced HB 437, a misguided exercise in futility to protect people from hurt feelings that ignores the reality of the World Wide Web, the Library of Congress and archives. Her attempt at erasing history, the “Right to Be Forgotten Act,” would have allowed an individual to demand that “a search engine, indexer, publisher or other person that makes information about an individual available, on or through the internet …” remove information deemed “inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate or excessive” regarding the individual. There was no explanation of who decides what information meets the criteria, much less an understanding that history should be absolute. A day after introducing the bill, Romero asked that it be tabled and issued a statement saying the bill “was far more sweeping than intended” and that she would never want to undermine the First Amendment.

The takeaway for taxpayers is these bills threaten to keep secret the information you need to find out how and if your government is working; who is benefiting from or being mistreated by its officials; even whom you might be hiring, entrusting with your child’s care or marrying.

Washington seldom leads the way on transparency, but President Donald Trump just signed the OPEN Government Data Act that essentially requires federal agencies to publish any “non-sensitive” information in a “machine-readable” format – hailed by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Data Innovation as a “major bipartisan victory for open data.”

Meanwhile, back at the Land of Enchantment ranch, the public needs to ride herd on the many proposals that promise a major loss for government accountability and the public’s right to know.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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