There are two basic truisms when it comes to transparency: Politicians running for office tend to be strong supporters of it; but government, when confronted with bad news about itself, tends to default to secrecy and obfuscation.
In the real world, the latter often means: Get things done under the radar if possible. When dealing with information requests, delay as long as you can – claiming the request is burdensome (oh, it’s just so hard!) and scouring exemptions to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act’s disclosure requirements to stretch them as far as possible.
If someone is looking into possible misconduct by a public employee that could lead to a departure – sometimes with a hefty goodbye check – hire a lawyer to do the investigation and claim attorney-client privilege. Or stretch the exemption for “matters of opinion” in a personnel file to include basic facts regarding a disciplinary matter and then fight disclosure in court.
And just this month, when presented with an IPRA request asking who was in Las Vegas, Nev., with the relocated University of New Mexico football team this fall, UNM’s general counsel redacted 103 names. In theory, this would be based on federal educational privacy laws – for the same student-athletes whose names would appear in a game program or appeared on television as the university asked donors to pony up money to support them.
So against this backdrop, it is fitting to recognize two recent examples where government got it right – recognizing that our system works best in the sunshine.
In example Number One, at the urging of President Pat Davis, the Albuquerque City Council unanimously approved a resolution requiring the mayor to let the council know 90 days before the administration implements any fee or rate adjustment outside the city’s annual, multi-meeting budget process. This was after a couple of below-the-radar fee hikes by the city’s Parking Division – a so-called enterprise fund, aka for-profit. One of the increases was for residential permits and the other a hefty hike on businesses for “loading zones.” Councilors didn’t know about either until flooded with constituent complaints.
Davis said such matters warrant transparency and called the resolution – which is supported by Mayor Tim Keller – “common sense.”
“It gives the public a way to weigh in and ensure no one is surprised,” Davis said.
Absolutely. If government is going to dip into your pocket you deserve to know in advance and have a chance to argue against it.
Example Number Two involves the Albuquerque Police Department.
APD commissioned an outside (and expensive) review by a law firm into allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the APD Academy and the firing of former Commander Angela Byrd.
The 166-page report compiled by the law firm German Burnette, which was paid $214,498, was unable to substantiate many of the initial allegations, but was replete with retaliation and inappropriate responses to complaints.
“Based on what I learned during this investigation, I think the culture at the Academy during the spring of 2020, and possibly from soon after Commander Byrd took over, was a culture of fear and mistrust,” investigator Elizabeth German wrote.
The report is marked “confidential attorney-client privileged communication.” But APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the city waived its privilege “in order to provide clear, transparent and factual information to the public on an investigation addressing the integrity of APD’s leaders.”
That would be a good lesson for leaders at the Albuquerque Public Schools, which to this day have fought successfully to keep secret the outside investigation report it relied on in booting then-Superintendent Winston Brooks out the door – along with $350,000, a deal to provide a positive reference and a pledge never to say anything bad about him.
In essence, APS’ message to the public is: These are your schools and your money – but it’s none of your business.
So it’s refreshing to see APD and the City of Albuquerque, with City Attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr., take this approach. Rather than cover up a bad news story, they have opted for disclosure to the public. And that’s the right thing to do. Kudos.
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.