January 16, 2017
The only thing transparent about a southern New Mexico lawmaker’s attempt to obscure public records from the public is the adverse effect it would have on citizens.
And so it goes with SB93, the brainchild of Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. This ill-conceived piece of legislation, pre-filed in advance of the 60-day legislative session, would exempt the applications of prospective government employees from public scrutiny — in some cases, the applications would apparently be secret forever.
Papen’s bill would add yet another exception to disclosure under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), the state’s sunshine and transparency law that allows the public to see how government works and how its money is being spent.
The proposed bill provides that the names and resume of any “finalist for the head of any agency, state institution or political subdivision of the state shall be made available prominently on the entity’s website no fewer than seven days prior to the final decision to hire the individual.”
That’s cold comfort, at best, for fans of transparent government. Papen does not define “finalist” in her proposed bill; nor does she spell out what would constitute the “head” of an agency. Furthermore, publication on some government website a week before a “final” decision hardly gives citizens the time or access they need to weigh in on who might “head” an agency that affects their lives.
It’s more than a little curious that the senator would push this onerous new exception at a time when the Las Cruces City Council, of which her son-in-law is a member, faces a lawsuit from a journalist over its refusal to release the names of city manager applicants.
Regardless of her motivation, Papen’s bill would mark a retreat into darkness for government in New Mexico. The existing exceptions to IPRA need narrowing, as secretive government officials and records custodians already overuse and, frequently, abuse them to keep information from the public. Other powerful actors outright ignore the law.
The last thing this state needs is another roadblock to transparency.
The Rio Grande chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists strongly condemns Papen’s SB93, and we urge the senator to withdraw the proposal immediately.
This statement represents the views of the Board of Directors of the Society of Professional Journalists Río Grande Chapter. SPJ is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.
Independent journalist Heath Haussamen is suing the city of Las Cruces over its refusal to release the names of city manager finalists. Haussamen is a member of the SPJ Rio Grande board and recused himself from the drafting and editing of this op-ed.