Editorial: NM can’t afford to go backward on government transparency - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: NM can’t afford to go backward on government transparency

“You simply cannot favor transparency as a policy and support this.”

— Albuquerque Journal editorial, Feb. 7, 2021, on a proposal to keep most names of government-job applicants secret

We have said it before and, unfortunately, must say it again. Keeping the names of applicants for government jobs secret under the guise the best won’t apply if their names are public simply does not prevail in the risk-reward ratio.

You might get better applicants — though in 1989 when the Journal, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and KOB-TV sued the University of New Mexico over applicant names in its presidential search, “the university failed to produce any empirical data that an open search resulted in a lack of qualified candidates.”

But you will open the door to possible discrimination, nepotism and cronyism. In that 1989 case, Juan Jose Peña, a decorated Army veteran, activist and federal court interpreter, testified that though his family, like many, had been in the state for generations, Hispanics and other minorities had consistently been discriminated against in hiring. If only finalists’ names are open, decision-makers could claim there weren’t qualified minority or female candidates and keep any evidence to the contrary confidential.

The judge understood the importance of Peña’s eloquent testimony and shut down the UNM search. The state Legislature summarily approved a five-public-finalist requirement for university presidents, far from ideal. Talman’s bill would limit that even further — requiring that only three finalists be revealed.

Subsequent court decisions have rightly made applications and resumes for all other public jobs – be it county manager or police chief – public record under current law.

And while Peña died in 2018, it is essential to remember his point of view came from someone who lived for decades in our state; who headed the Hispanic Roundtable, the GI Forum and was a founding member of the Partido de la Raza Unida de Nuevo Mexico; who has been described as “one of the most important civil rights leaders of our generation.”

And yet in 2023 Democratic Sen. Bill Tallman of Albuquerque — a retired city manager himself — is sponsoring Senate Bill 63 to go back in time to the old days of back-room deals. He got the majority of his fellow senators on the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee to buy his secrecy rationale: Moe Maestas, Gerald Ortiz y Pino, Martin Hickey, Brenda McKenna and Antionette Sedillo Lopez, all Albuquerque Democrats, and Gregg Schmedes, a Tijeras Republican, showed with their votes where they truly stand on transparent, accountable government.

Only Republican Sens. David Gallegos of Eunice and Stuart Ingle of Portales stood up for transparent hiring in government jobs. They were sadly outnumbered.

Apparently Tallman, Maestas, Ortiz y Pino, Hickey, McKenna, Sedillo Lopez and Schmedes missed the fact that the 1989 litigation proved highly qualified Hispanic candidates had indeed been passed over – sometimes not even getting an interview.

And that in subsequent lawsuits over secret searches ranging from Carlsbad city administrator to Farmington city manager, the courts weighed the competing interests of applicant pools and transparency and picked transparency.

And that in 2008, UNM deemed the son of then-president David Schmidly as best-qualified for a newly created, $94,000-a-year job as “associate director of sustainability.” After the Journal requested the public records of applicants, it turned out the former private-sector marketing director had beaten out award-winning environmentalists, engineers and people with a track record working in sustainability at UNM. Schmidly’s son withdrew a week later.

How can seven of our senators actually believe we should go back to a system that would have allowed most of those candidates’ names to be secret?

The bill now is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it needs to die a well-deserved death. If transparency and accountability are but lip service and it makes it to the Senate Floor, the House or our governor, we would urge those considering the bill to remember Juan Jose Peña, the discrimination and shenanigans that have been part and parcel of government hiring when officials bank on secrecy, and to support the public’s right to know.

3 bills that do support transparency

Meanwhile, kudos to the architects of the $6.4 million supplemental spending bill moving forward in the Senate for including the requirement it include which lawmaker sponsored each appropriation in the bill. For too long lawmakers have been able to hide who gives how many public dollars to whom (though there have been upstanding legislators who routinely publish what they are sponsoring).

And cheers as well to a pair of bills requiring more transparency from lobbyists — SB 217 would require them to report their compensation from each employer, and SB 218 would require them to report what bills they’re lobbying on and what positions they’ve taken on them. Both will help the public know who is advocating for what, and who is trying to push the levers of government. The former is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and, in an about-face on good government, Schmedes. The latter by Steinborn and Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

The Inspection of Public Records Act has a presumption of openness — that citizens are entitled to the greatest possible amount of information about their government.

And voters need to remember any lawmaker who votes against that.

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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