Saturday, December 19, 2009
Governor Keeps Layoffs Secret
By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
Gov. Bill Richardson has talked the talk.
"The right to have an open, accessible and accountable government provides the opportunity for the people to determine if public servants are fulfilling their duty," Richardson said in May 2005.
The question is whether the governor has walked the walk.
It's the news media's role to report to the public on the activities of government. To fulfill that role, it needs access, whether it be to officials, records or meetings where decisions take place.
It's simple: The First Amendment protects free speech and a free press, and you can't have those and a resulting open government without media and other public access to government. Now, let's look at Richardson and the access issue.
Upon taking office in 2003, the governor fielded an unprecedented number of political appointees, many of them former members of the media, across government to serve as public-information officers.
Their job is to facilitate access to government but have too often served as a fire wall for Richardson, at times blocking media access to the actual decision-makers and experts in government and requiring formal requests for the most basic of government records.
In my case, Gilbert Gallegos, the governor's combative press secretary, has gone a step further, recently ordering public-information officers throughout government not to speak to me. That's a double fire wall.
Richardson and Gallegos are upset with my reporting on the governor, but the dispute isn't about me. It's about your right to know about the activities of government.
During Richardson's seven years in office, there have been occasional dust-ups with the media over release of government records. The most recent deals with the governor's plan to lay off 59 political hires throughout government effective Jan. 8.
The Governor's Office has refused requests by several media outlets to identify those being laid off and the positions they hold.
In response to the Journal request, the Governor's Office said it didn't have any records showing the names and job titles.
Under the state Inspection of Public Records Act, the Governor's Office was required to forward the request to any agency with such records, but it apparently didn't do so, saying it considered the matter closed.
Gallegos also told The Santa Fe New Mexican, in denying its request for the layoff information, "It is not necessary, nor is it appropriate or dignified to identify individuals who are losing their jobs."
I understand the empathy, but is the Richardson administration a government of laws or is it a government that decides on its own what justice is and acts accordingly in conflict of the law?
The media have asked for the layoff information because there are important issues at stake for the public, including the impact on government services and the other activities it conducts on your behalf.
An example: Bruce Kohl, head of the state Securities Division, unilaterally disclosed that he is being laid off. The division licenses investment professionals and investigates financial fraud.
There is a legal question of whether Richardson can reshape the activities of government through layoffs without approval of the Legislature, but lawmakers appear to have surrendered on that issue, given the state budget crunch.
Equally important to the public are the political jobs being saved.
Another example: Is Richardson diminishing the work of the Securities Division in protecting New Mexicans while retaining the maid, chef and residence manager at the Governor's Mansion?
After the layoffs take place Jan. 8, the media will be able to use historical and current payroll records to identify the positions eliminated and those saved by Richardson.
It will also be able to tell you if some political appointees were slipped into nonpolitical classified jobs, protecting them from dismissal once a new administration takes office in just over a year.
The question is whether the administration is serving its interests or the public's interests in stonewalling the release of that information before the layoffs take place and denying the public a chance to have its voice heard on Richardson's plans.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at 505-992-6280 or at email@example.com