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Transparency? No, Not So Much

Many in Santa Fe probably haven’t noticed, but for the past 18 months City Hall has been operating under a policy that stresses “accountability, customer service and transparency.”

We found that out this past week when, following a week or two of negative headlines about the difficulties of prying information out of the city on employee theft of parking revenue or even annexation costs, city officials caved. Suddenly, “transparency” — instead of a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo about what the city can or can’t be forced to make public — became the watchword.

City officials also decided that the rule of law would not collapse and anarchy would not ensue if they released a city audit that was in so-called “draft” form, breaking with a longtime policy of resisting release of city records that for one reason or another weren’t considered final.

The audit itself, on police department finances, seemed innocuous. But the big news was that city officials let the public see a document that, in the city’s legal view, they didn’t have to. Other local and state government agencies haven’t built a stone wall around working documents quite like the city has. City officials’ position in the past has been, effectively, if we’re not required to make a document public, we’re not going to do it.

But this week, Mayor David Coss and City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger issued a news release reminding us about the 18-month-old ACT policy — remember, that’s accountability, customer service and transparency — and vowing to put forth a resolution that will clarify the city’s policy on release of public documents, apparently in furtherance of the transparency mantra.

That’s good, probably, but it comes too late for one important document.

For roughly five months before the city elections earlier this month, the city had a University of New Mexico report, commissioned by the City Council, on planned annexations. It contained information that was obviously relevant to items the Council asked voters to consider in the March 6 city elections — namely, three bond issues supported by new property taxes.

The UNM report suggested that more tax increases are on the way to finance annexation costs, although city leaders don’t necessarily agree. And the report challenged the need to build a new south-side fire station to help serve annexed areas, one of several construction projects the council wanted voters to support.

The city has had the report since October but it wasn’t made public until after the election. Transparency? In this case, not so much.

Santa Fe’s a liberal town and it has a city government that proudly pushes a progressive agenda — the nation’s highest minimum wage and immigrant friendly policies are examples. But for some reason, openness has never been a hallmark.

Coss and the City Council need to do a lot better. It may be more fun to trot off to Austin to tout the Santa Fe movie business at the South by Southwest festival, or make the rounds in the Big Apple to promote tourism. But until Santa Fe’s political leaders truly make open records and transparency in government a priority beyond press release hyperbole, it ain’t gonna happen.