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Editorial: Governor needs to open up her pandemic economic council

A man rides his bike past shuttered storse in Albuquerque's Old Town on April 23. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

A man rides his bike past shuttered stores in Albuquerque’s Old Town on April 23. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has repeatedly said: “We’re all in this together.” Our first-term governor, enmeshed in the biggest crisis facing the state in a century, has sought to instill a collective spirit to fight the virus by encouraging, cajoling, ordering and even threatening all to stay home – save for essential errands and essential jobs.

But when it comes to reopening New Mexico’s economy, the governor has decided she and a handpicked group can do it all by themselves – behind closed doors.

A spokesman was tasked last week with saying the governor’s Economic Recovery Council is not subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act, and its deliberations will be closed to the public. No public meeting calendars, no agendas, no minutes, no nothing.

We are not suggesting in-person town hall meetings; instead, there are multiple other ways to open up this process.

For now, at least, the 2 million New Mexicans who are living with the pandemic and the economic downturn it and the oil bust have caused will not be allowed to tune in to virtual town halls or submit thoughts, questions or frustrations via an online portal. The governor said during a news conference Thursday that her advisory council has been meeting every few days to consider economic recovery options. And she announced a phased reopening plan based on recommendations of said council that includes allowing curbside pickup at retail stores and opening state parks and golf courses on a modified basis.

There’s been no shortage of ideas about how the state should go about reopening the economy, evidenced by literally hundreds of op-eds, letters to the editor and Speak Up! submissions to the Journal since the shutdown in March. Democrats and Republicans, business groups and consumers, local elected officials and physicians have all voiced options on lifting restrictions.

The governor is shutting out the 141,000 people recently put out of work. Perhaps some of their stories would convince Lujan Grisham there is more to consider in reopening the economy than computer models. There’s been a lot of pain, and little of that is going to be expressed by the council’s representatives of a renewable energy developer or a mass media conglomerate. The governor needs to hear voices from the 41,000 restaurant employees put out of work, the 340,000 schoolchildren whose education has been disrupted, and the many shuttered mom-and-pop business owners who are watching as their customers are funneled to big-box stores.

The Taxation and Revenue Department says work summaries of the Economic Recovery Council will be made public. That’s a day late and a dollar short. How would you feel if your local city council started meeting privately and issued summaries of its meetings after all the discussion and decisions had been made? It’s impossible for New Mexicans who aren’t in the governor’s cool-kids club to affect decisions if they aren’t allowed to somehow attend and provide input before a meeting is adjourned.

Prior advisory groups to the governor have met publicly to formulate plans to legalize marijuana and develop recommendations on pension reforms. But the Economic Recovery Council, whose decisions affect every man, woman and child in New Mexico, meets privately. The state’s leading advocacy group for transparency in government, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says “there has been no valid explanation as to why the meetings will be held behind closed doors and no clarification as to why it is in the state’s best interests for the meetings to be closed and not publicly noticed. Keeping the meeting closed means the council’s members will be providing advice to the governor but do not have to explain their reasoning – in essence there is no way to check their evidence, facts or data.”

NMFOG also notes the group’s widespread impact.

“Life, death, poverty and prosperity all hang in the balance as the state moves forward. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decisions, based on the council’s input, will affect all of us – those who are working from home, those who are still on the front lines and those who have no work.”

NMFOG is exactly right. Deliberations affecting every student, every parent, every school, every employee, every consumer, every business, every local government and ultimately every taxpayer should not be held privately.

The governor, usually a vocal champion for open government, is showing zero respect for New Mexicans who, like the rest of the world, are shouldering emotions that run from defiant to doubtful to concerned to panicked. They not only want to know what’s going on, they have every right to know. Lujan Grisham is instead centralizing and cloaking all deliberations so none of her edicts can be publicly questioned. The process is a sham.

Everyone wants to return to a state closer to “normal.” The key is balancing public health with economic needs. Seven weeks in, the governor needs to not only lead but listen and open the Economic Recovery Council to public view and public input.

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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