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Editorial: When it comes to hiring for top public jobs, right to know outweighs privacy

Introducing more secrecy to the process of hiring high-level government jobs wasn’t a good idea eight months ago, and it’s not a good idea now.

But that doesn’t seem to have sunk in with the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education or with New Mexico Sen. Bill Tallman, joint backers of a renewed push to allow government agencies to withhold the names of all but three finalists for top jobs, including school district superintendents.

According to a Nov. 21 story by Journal reporter Shelby Perea, the APS board wants a do-over of Senate Bill 259, which died this spring (and to which the Journal Editorial Board objected). Tallman, an Albuquerque Democrat, sponsored that effort, and has said he plans to file similar legislation for the truncated 2020 legislative session.

APS and Tallman aren’t alone in their stance. The argument exists that qualified professionals from across the country may not be so willing to throw their hats into the proverbial ring if they know current employers might get wind of it through media reports. Public agencies – the reasoning goes – lose out on many qualified applicants because of that.

New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Melanie Majors is right when she says there’s been no empirical evidence to support the fear that an open process prevents the hiring of qualified people.

In fairness, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that some qualified candidates would avoid applying for high-ranking posts for fear of retaliation. And that’s a pity.

Unfortunately, there’s no way around the problem that doesn’t leave the public out in the cold, wondering how important hiring decisions are being made behind closed doors.

That’s particularly true in a state like New Mexico, with its decades-long legacy of cronyism, nepotism and overall corruption. The tax-paying public pays the salaries for high-level jobs like school superintendent or city manager, and has a large stake in how well these leaders do their jobs. We shouldn’t just know who got the top job; we deserve to know who was passed over.

Bluntly, our government as a whole hasn’t earned the right to be trusted without verification that it gives proper shrift to the best possible candidates – including applicants who may be women, people of color or even just people who aren’t same-party pals.

Thankfully, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham seems ready to keep the effort at arm’s length in the coming legislative session. In order for Tallman to make another pass at a bill in 2020, Lujan Grisham would have to agree to place it on her call for the short session in January. Her office has indicated that’s not happening, and that’s a good thing.

But there’s always the next year, and two after that.

Hopefully, Tallman’s fellow lawmakers will recognize that this bill and others like it represents a grave threat to the public’s right to know, well-meaning or not. And knowing that, it is also hoped that they follow the governor’s lead and check future attacks on transparency at the door.

There’s simply too much at stake for the public to be left in the dark.

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.