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Advancing bills worry transparency advocates

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

In March 2018, then-gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham spoke about the need for transparency in government and that it ultimately boils down to leadership.

“This is an issue of leadership and culture and experience,” Grisham said in her closing remarks during the forum sponsored by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and broadcast by KNME. “If you lead by creating the expectation by everyone in government and everyone in the Legislature and every public official to create an environment where we’re completely transparent you will get a much more open government.”

Fast forward a year and Lujan Grisham is now governor. State lawmakers are in the final week of a 60-day legislative session. FOG and other transparency advocates are raising concerns about a number of bills gaining steam in the Legislature that would limit the public’s right to know about such things as who is applying for top jobs around the state.

And it’s Sunshine Week again, the time of year when journalists and transparency advocates strive to get the word out about the public’s right to know what the government is up to and why it’s important to everyday citizens.

In recognition of Sunshine Week, the Journal and FOG are highlighting the governor’s remarks about transparency from last year’s sunshine forum. A version of that broadcast, which includes the panel’s questions and her complete responses, is available on the Journal and FOG websites.

Lujan Grisham touted her record of transparency during the forum, noting her accomplishments in previous positions, including publishing reports that weren’t required when she was a state Cabinet secretary and working to improve ethics and financial disclosure requirements as a Bernalillo County commissioner.

“I spent my entire career fighting for a transparent and open government, because I find all too often that government is closed, secret, unaccountable and intractable,” Lujan Grisham said.

Now, as governor, she’ll likely have final say on whether bills coming out of the Legislature – including those that transparency advocates are worried about – become law.

“There are several bills right now in the Legislature (that) are what we would consider anti-transparency bills,” said Melanie Majors, FOG’s executive director.

Those measures include Senate Bill 259, which would keep applicants for executive jobs in state and local government secret, except for the final three applicants, and the proposed Criminal Record Expungement Act, which would allow many people charged, indicted or even convicted of a crime to petition a judge to wipe their criminal records from public view.

Other legislation introduced this session could block the release of other public records and even increase the cost of public records

As a gubernatorial candidate, Lujan Grisham expressed support for expanded openness in state government by advocating for government documents to be available to the public for free or at a low cost.

“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.

And when asked during a Journal editorial board meeting in October her position on Albuquerque Public Schools’ plan to ask the Legislature to amend state law so that it wouldn’t have to disclose the names of superintendent candidates except for three finalists, Lujan Grisham said she understood that the current disclosure requirements might keep certain people from applying for top posts.

“I think that’s an issue. On the other hand, if we want trust and we want public engagement, I think it actually outweighs that negative, and folks who are interested in leadership positions usually have the courage to explain that to their employer, and to take that risk,” Lujan Grisham told Journal editors.

“And quite frankly, that’s the kind of person that you’re interested in, who’s willing to take that risk and have a light shined on their past performance and those issues because otherwise we just don’t know. So, again, I think it’s a real unintended consequence that does preclude sometimes getting the kind of candidates that you want, but I’m in favor of full transparency.”

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