It’s ironic that the state Legislature is considering several anti-open government bills during Sunshine Week, the national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
Interestingly, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to that state’s public records law.
The following year, the idea of a national Sunshine Sunday was raised at an American Society of News Editors Freedom of Information summit, but it was decided that the initiative needed to be more than a single day, and Sunshine Week was born.
During Sunshine Week 2017 hundreds of media organizations, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and other participants engage in public discussions on the importance of open government as a bedrock of democracy. The Journal will present a variety of columns and essays dealing with open government during the week, but what better place to start than with our own Legislature.
The state Inspection of Public Records Act emphasizes “that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees.” Yet several bills seeking to limit your right to “the greatest possible information” about your government are under legislative consideration and deserve your attention.
Senate Bill 149: Although its stated purpose is to protect the privacy of victims and witnesses of six highly personal crimes, this bill is so broadly written it would render public versions of certain police reports “virtually void of meaningful information,” according to Gregory P. Williams, president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. It would allow law enforcement to keep secret anything in police reports that could reveal the identity of v ictims or non-law enforcement witnesses to: assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration; assault against a household member with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration; stalking; aggravated stalking; criminal sexual penetration; and criminal sexual contact – until charges are filed. Sponsors say the intent is to protect victims, but who knows how broadly agencies will interpret it, possibly taking out all locations, descriptions, etc.
This well-intentioned but poorly executed bill is sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and supported by the University of New Mexico, which is under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice because of its handling of sex-assault reports. As Williams points out, it “would significantly harm the ability … to report on violent crime in New Mexico, which in turn keeps the public less informed on issues of law enforcement and crime in our communities.”
House Bill 505: This bill, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, would allow some convicted criminals to have their criminal records erased. Supporters say a criminal record can keep someone from getting a job and that it isn’t fair for one mistake to follow a person for the rest of their life. Opponents correctly point out it’s bad policy to expunge public records, especially when it comes to the work of law enforcement. There are numerous reasons people should have access to criminal records, ranging from hiring decisions to deciding who you want teaching or driving your children. The threat of a lifelong criminal record is also a deterrent to crime.
Senate Bill 93: Legislators and others often claim that making the names of applicants for public jobs public discourages good candidates from seeking particular jobs, and this bill, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, would keep their names secret. But applicants should know up front that, because they are applying for a “public job” that is paid with “public” money, the public deserves to know who they are. And if they’re that secretive about applying, how open will they be once they’re hired? Opponents also rightly note transparency helps build public trust and prevent cronyism.
Senate Bill 429 : This bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, would make a wide range of Spaceport America records secret, ostensibly to make it competitive with other spaceports. It would exempt from public disclosure of prospective and current client information including identities, correspondence, agreements, client names, payments, activities, visitor logs, policies and security protocols. Other than security protocols and truly propriety information (already protected under IPRA), there is no good reason to exempt the other records wholesale. The Spaceport, which might not ever show a profit, was built with $218.5 million in public money, and the state pays nearly $500,000 a year to keep it afloat. That amount of public money demands the highest degree of transparency available.
House Bill 267: This bill, sponsored by Reps. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, and Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, would exempt from public disclosure “data, records or information of a proprietary nature” generated by university research before the information is published or patented. The IPRA already makes an exception for “trade secrets,” and the state’s Confidential Materials Act is probably the better avenue for protecting such data.
Unfortunately, efforts like these to weaken our state’s Inspection of Public Records Act are nothing new.
“This is, unfortunately, normal,” NMFOG’s Williams said recently. “Basically, every session we deal with several attempts to roll back public access to public records.”
So far, the state’s public records act, passed in the 1970s, has remained intact, and for good reason. Especially this week, New Mexico’s lawmakers need to recognize that sunshine remains a powerful disinfectant.
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.