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Editorial: NM Senate leader attacks government accountability

It’s a brand new year, with a brand new 60-day state legislative session. Yet as some talk about trying to move the state forward, one powerful New Mexico lawmaker would take it back, quite literally, to the dark ages of government accountability and transparency.

It is shocking that Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, thinks it’s a good idea to allow public agencies in New Mexico to keep the results of their applicant searches secret until they are down to one (or a few) finalist(s) for a top job at a public agency, institution or local government – and then only let the public in on the pick a week or so before it’s finalized. And at that point, all the public that is going to pay this person’s salary is allowed to know is the finalist’s name and résumé.

There will be no clue, of course, about whether there were better qualified applicants. Or whether there were minority applicants who were long shut out of things like searches for university presidents in New Mexico. But hey, if nobody knows….

Right now all applicants and their résumés are subject to the state Inspection of Public Records Act, which guarantees public access to public records and says the public is entitled to the greatest amount of information possible about its government. And that came after close to four decades of hard-fought court battles that pitted news media, including the Journal, and transparency groups against government agencies. (The only exception: university president searches, in which only the top five finalists must be made public.)

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The bottom line is the public is paying for these employees, and those employees’ decisions and actions can, and do, affect the everyday lives of the public.

Granted, if the public doesn’t know who applied and what the qualifications are, it makes it a lot easier for politicians to hire as paybacks or to help out that favorite cousin or nephew.

Papen’s ill-conceived legislation would mean the taxpaying public would have no ability to connect important dots – those that map out not only who applied for jobs paid for with public dollars, but also if the search was wide and attracted a diverse pool of applicants, if qualifications prevailed as that pool was narrowed or if cronyism or nepotism played a role in the selection process.

It would appear Papen is doing some heavy lifting here for New Mexico State University President Garrey Carruthers, who unsuccessfully tried to turn back the clock two years ago and keep secret not just job applicants but people who file civil rights complaints or are accused of civil rights violations as well as various law enforcement records. He argued that openness and accountability kept people from applying to be NMSU’s athletic director, though he commended the ultimate hire as more than capable.

Papen, meanwhile, says her goal is to encourage people to apply at government agencies without fear of jeopardizing their current employment unless and until they are named a finalist. Good intentions? Perhaps. Huge potential negative consequences? Absolutely.

Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says this legislation “would create an environment ripe for cronyism. … Taxpayers have a vested interest in reviewing government-sector job candidates to determine if the best qualified professionals are being selected from a diverse pool of applicants to work for them.”

And Jeff Walter of the New Mexico Press Association, an advocacy group for newspapers, emphasizes “transparency is always the best policy as far as open government goes.”

That’s because when people apply for government jobs, they are asking to work for the public, and the public has a right to be part of the process. State district and appellate courts have repeatedly defended and expanded that right and have relied on the strong legislative language that says it is the public policy of the state to allow citizens “the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government.”

That flow of information makes a democratic system work, and Papen and her Roundhouse colleagues should understand it is essential to moving the state forward. Any proposal that weakens it should be DOA.

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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