March 16-22 is Sunshine Week in New Mexico and nationwide. Take a moment to celebrate. Sunshine Week focuses on the importance of open government. No open government, no democracy. No transparency, no government accountability.
I care about Sunshine Week both as a citizen and as a former newspaper employee/publisher for 22 years. We relied heavily upon the State of New Mexico’s strong public records and opening meeting acts to help keep public officials accountable and public bodies honest.
We have many good examples of open government in our state. If the leader of a local government, school board, state department or other entity is committed to open, professional government, the citizens of that government are well served.
In my career we used the acts to shine a light on government business, such as inequities in salaries of public employees or incorrect and illegal payment of expenses to government employees. When citizens can’t obtain such information, rumors proliferate, trust in public servants dies and officials lose ability to lead.
Our newsroom once requested records about a police shooting which had set the community on edge. Rumors were rampant and police were placed in the position of being the recipients of wild speculation and accusations. The police report was clearly a public document under our state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. A law enforcement official refused to turn over the records to our newspaper. Fortunately the district attorney’s office faxed the requested records. We then published the story and the community could form opinions based on facts, and rumors were laid to rest.
This district attorney is one of many public servants I have encountered over the years who want to follow the law, do the right thing and conduct open government. They are shining examples of good government leaders and employees.
On the other hand, I am puzzled and sometimes shocked when public bodies or officials choose not to comply with open records and meetings laws. Such decisions may stem from a lack of education or training about our transparency statutes. Noncompliance may arise out of a misguided belief that secrecy is the better path. It never is.
Officials may not realize they become lawbreakers when they refuse public information that is legally obtainable. Our country’s history has proven on more than one occasion that secrecy always makes problems worse and erodes public confidence in government. Secrecy is the hallmark of a totalitarian society, not a democracy. Secrecy serves only special interests and not the citizens.
Sunshine laws aren’t a special benefit for the press. Sure, it’s often up to media to be our witnesses in public meetings, to request and inspect records then report news that often protects the public. But all citizens have a right to know. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government strengthens that right by educating, advocating and litigating on everyone’s behalf for transparency. NMFOG can turn the voice of one person into a mandate for government to conduct business with its doors open.
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government hotline at 1-888-843-9121 answers questions from citizens, government employees and even elected officials. We all benefit from an open government collaboration that serves the citizens of New Mexico.
So go ahead and celebrate this week. Celebrate your right to know. And help bring 365 days of Sunshine to New Mexico.
is board president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government
and past publisher of the Hobbs News-Sun.