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Editorial: Protecting public information is protecting the public

It’s a fight you might not even know is happening.

But it’s real, every time a news reporter pushes back against a stonewalling government spokesperson.

Every time an advocacy group like the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government sheds light on legislation that could result in increased government secrecy.

Every time someone goes to the local courthouse to ask for records.

Whenever people demand access to public information, they’re fighting for the public.

Sunshine Week logo

Saturday marks the end of Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to shine a light on government transparency issues. Taxpayers fund government, which in turn should serve and be accountable to the taxpayers. Government business is everyone’s business, and laws like the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act protect our right to demand proof that bureaucrats are doing their jobs and spending our tax money properly and wisely.

State legislators barreling toward the end of both Sunshine Week and the annual legislative session Saturday would do well to take a step back from bills – even well-meaning ones – that could rattle confidence in New Mexico’s dedication to transparency.

One example is Senate Bill 259. Titled “Disclose Finalists For Appointive Positions,” it would be one of the largest rollbacks to public access in IPRA’s history.

Advocates have time and again had to fight and litigate to protect the public’s right to know who is applying for public jobs – positions you and I are paying for. This bill – which has been passed by the Senate and is swiftly winding its way through the House – shrouds in secrecy the hiring process for high-powered executive positions like school superintendent and city manager. New Mexicans would only learn the names of the three finalists for these positions. Proponents say the change is necessary to attract better talent. But such a change prevents the public from being able to answer such questions as: Did the candidate pool contain more qualified women? Did it contain candidates of color who were overlooked? Under this bill, we’ll never know.

And some anti-transparency bills have already made it to the governor’s desk. One such bill is House Bill 370, the Criminal Record Expungement Act, which has been touted as a way to allow reformed criminals to put their pasts behind them.

The American Civil Liberties Union, often a champion for government transparency, supports the measure, viewing it through the lens of compassion for people whose criminal records can hurt their ability to find jobs and housing. But among the crimes that would be hidden by the bill’s broad brush strokes are some first-degree felonies like armed robbery, drug trafficking and some domestic violence crimes. The bill would create public safety risks by putting innocent parties in the dark: potential employers, neighbors and significant others.

So this Sunshine Week, let’s celebrate our right to public information and recognize the importance of keeping our government working by the people and for the people.

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.