Wood: The importance of sunshine
Recognizing that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, the intent of the legislature in enacting the Inspection of Public Records Act is to ensure, and it is declared to be the public policy of this state, that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees. It is the further intent of the legislature, and it is declared to be the public policy of this state, that to provide persons with such information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officers and employees.
— From New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act
The week of March 12-18 is Sunshine Week, a time when the media and open government advocates throughout the country take stock of battles won and lost in the fight for government transparency.
In this state, the New Mexico Press Association, its member newspapers, and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government are often on the front lines of these battles, fighting for more openness. These fights are about keeping government accountable to you, the citizens. And they are about keeping democracy alive.
New Mexico has two strong sunshine laws. The Inspection of Public Records Act makes it clear that most records maintained by state and local government agencies are public and must be made available to anyone who asks to see them. The law does specify some records that are off limits to the public, but those exceptions are few and far between. Then there’s the Open Meetings Act, which requires that city councils, school boards and other state and local governing bodies conduct their business in open meetings. Again, governing boards can go behind closed doors to discuss certain matters, but, even then, all final decisions must be made during an open meeting.
Journalists use these laws regularly to access information. But New Mexico’s sunshine laws were enacted to give everyone the opportunity to keep tabs on what their government is doing.
There have been attempts over the years to scale back our public records law.
Indeed, lawmakers in Santa Fe are considering several measures that, if enacted, would exempt certain records from public disclosure.
One proposal, Senate Bill 93, would allow government agencies to keep the names and applications of people applying for public jobs confidential. Both the Press Association and New Mexico's Foundation for Open Government oppose that legislation. Injecting secrecy into the government hiring process is a bad idea because it eliminates the ability for journalists and members of the public to verify that the person hired for a taxpayer-funded position was the best candidate. Fortunately, that legislation was tabled by the Senate Public Affairs Committee and doesn’t appear to be gaining traction.
The Legislature is considering several other bills that would restrict public access to records. We urge lawmakers to vote for transparency when those issues come up.
Finally, we can’t allow Sunshine Week to pass without mentioning our state’s judiciary, which has taken a major step forward in the transparency arena.
The Supreme Court approved a proposal in January to give news reporters and others secure online access to court records. This is part of the high court’s effort to provide online access to court records to the public at large, although moving forward with that plan will require funding for redaction software to safeguard personal identifying information like Social Security numbers.
We applaud the Supreme Court for embracing transparency.
Founded in 1888, the New Mexico Press Association exists to improve the quality of member newspapers, encourage high journalistic standards, promote journalism education and protect the rights of Free Speech for its members as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America.