A major victory was won on behalf of open government in Farmington and in New Mexico when District Judge Karen Townsend ruled Tuesday that the city was wrong to keep secret its applications for city manager, the most powerful position within the city administration.

The city wants to keep the public from knowing who applied. It claims that implied confidentiality for the candidates is more important than a local citizen being able to examine the process for fairness, diversity, qualifications, legalities or otherwise.

The city, in a nutshell, is saying "just trust me" to do the job, without allowing for the fact that a citizen might have something meaningful to say about the process or about the candidate list.

This should never have gone to court.

It should never have been a dispute.

Our elected city officials should never overlook the power of the citizen when it comes to remembering who is the real boss, or remembering that citizen participation is the cornerstone of democracy.

We do not elect a "just trust me" government.

Nor is it about whether we trust our elected officials; it is about the process itself. It is about transparency in government.

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A refresher for those out of the loop: The Daily Times was forced to file a lawsuit against the city of Farmington to gain access to the applications for city manager, a post recently left vacant by the now-retired Bob Hudson.


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Mayor Bill Standley and the City Council, with supporting advice from City Attorney Jay Burnham, chose to make the search in secret, releasing the names of only the finalists. It denied a request by the newspaper to review the applications...

  • This despite the newspaper's argument that openness is important for the image of Farmington and its many controversial issues of the past that city leaders are trying so hard to change.

  • This despite the state law, and more importantly the spirit of the law, which requires public records to be made public to allow greater accountability. The law is the law, and the city is searching for exceptions.

  • This despite the argument that, without allowing public inspection, there can be no proof that a final selection was made from a pool of candidates that allowed fair consideration of gender diversity, racial diversity, qualifications over favoritism, or so many other possibilities that could exist.

  • This despite the fact that any individual citizen might find something of interest in the candidate pool that neither the city nor the newspaper ever thought about. We should never take the average citizen for granted.

    Mayor Standley only had to select a candidate. But, that candidate must get council approval, and to find a truly qualified candidate, a search was necessary to create a better applicant pool. It would be very risky politics and arrogant leadership to just approve such an all-powerful person as city manager without doing a justifiable and competent search, and, to his credit, the mayor pursued that route.

    He bit on bad advice, however, in letting others such as Burnham and City Councilman George Sharpe insist that it only made common sense to keep the search secret. The argument that a better pool of candidates would come if we protected that pool by not publicly revealing their interest in the Farmington post is unproven, and in fact very much disputed when it comes to public office vs. private.

    Sharpe continuously has argued that it only makes sense to keep the applicants secret. Yet, the councilman, and apparently others in city government, seems unable to grasp the fact that there is a difference, a big difference, in recruiting for a private job and a public one.

    Who wants a city manager who does not agree with open government starting with their own application? If they want to keep secrets from the beginning, then throw them out. Farmington doesn't need such a fence straddler to come here seeking to lead a wonderful team of city workers while looking over their shoulder at the old job. Confidence, instead, is one of the first traits a new city manager should have here.

    Public vs. private is a bigger issue. The private sector may consider it an unrequired courtesy if an employee confides in his or her boss about interests in leaving. But the public sector is a different story, as it should be understood from the get-go that taxpayers are the boss.

    Hiring a city manager, and soliciting qualified candidates, is NOT the same as hiring a store manager or a field foreman. A city manager in Farmington has about 45,000 bosses, and he or she should best understand that before being willing to apply for the job and standing up to review.

    City councilors and advisers who prefer lawsuits over openness should understand that, too.

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    The newspaper never intended to get into a legal fight with the city when it first sought the applications for city manager. It never thought a lawsuit would be necessary for something that seemed so obvious as to the public's interest in applicants for such a powerful job.

    Apparently, the city leadership felt its decision for a closed search should simply be accepted as policy and in our best interest.

    Yes, the mayor and council will tell you that it had the best interests of the city in mind when it felt secrecy would assure it of more, qualified candidates, something proven not to be a fact during the trial.

    Further, only because the lawsuit was filed did we learn that the city wasn't even following its own requirements, by allowing many of the applicants to apply without filing an application. An application that asked about legal citizenship status, felony backgrounds and other important facts necessary for considering cuts to decide finalists.

    It turns out, three of the nine finalists were chosen despite having not provided that information on an application.

    We're told to trust our city government, but yet, if these mistakes were discovered, how can any of us assume the citizenry might not find other questions to ask?

    It is a good time to fight such a battle, if we must, because Mayor Standley is an honorable man with many good intentions, as is the same with most of our city leadership regarding care and dedication. Imagine if we were having to fight this fight with a mayor who thought open light was the enemy, instead of trying to strike a balance with it as he has in the past? Imagine if he was a control freak instead of a true gentleman?

    Instead, this was a fight about principle with good intentions voiced on both sides. But, it remains a battle that was unnecessary.

    Farmington is trying to move beyond a state of mistrust. It is trying to move beyond the "good old boy" system of leadership that fiercely has protected its turf since the city was established in the Old West days of the late 1800s.

    It's time we declare Farmington an open-government city, and mean it.

    Meanwhile, please realize your newspaper is simply doing its watchdog role by challenging our friends at City Hall to be open. Thankfully, we have a publisher and a company that still believe in such an important, idealistic mission. It reminds me of a few words I penned several years ago that define just how important we take this duty:

    A trusted, accurate, courageous media is the wall of democracy that separates the fact and fiction of freedom. Lose it, and the whole roof caves in; protect it, and we live in a mighty fortress.

    Troy Turner is the editor of The Daily Times. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 450, Farmington, N.M., 87499; or at tturner@daily-times.com.