Here’s a statement from SPJ Rio Grande president Laura Paskus, on behalf of the board:
Already in New Mexico, we have too few reporters trying to cover too many issues. And many are doing that on a salary that’s not sustainable, and in a job that’s not guaranteed or secure.
We’ve watched the disappearance of locally-owned newspapers. And we’ve watched corporations from out of state buy out newspapers and newsrooms. Neither of those have been good for the communities those papers serve. As out-of-state owners value profits above their employees and the communities they’re supposed to serve, all New Mexicans suffer.
Right now in New Mexico, we need more reporters covering the border. Not fewer. We also need more reporters covering oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin and the Permian Basin. We need more reporters covering WIPP and the proposed new facilities in southwestern New Mexico and west Texas.
In recent years, we’ve seen round after round of layoffs. And the latest announcements are disturbing, to say the very least. At this moment in history access to accurate information has perhaps never been more important.
Like most people, I read online newspapers and get my national and international news from media outlets outside the state. And I realize many people rely on cable television. But that access to more information about the nation and the globe can’t be at the expense of knowing what’s happening in our own neighborhoods and counties.
At a time when we need to know more — about one another, about what’s happening around us, and about how our governments operate — the news of these layoffs is very bad for all New Mexicans.
Rio Grande SPJ chapter president Laura Paskus delivered this statement today at a committee hearing for HB10. The board opposes this legislation because it believes the bill would decrease transparency in state government. The House, State Government, Indian and Veteran’s Affairs committee voted 6 to 3 to pass the bill out of committee. It now heads to House Judiciary Committee.
The Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists always appreciates when legislators take an interest in issues related to transparency and public accountability.
However, we do not support the current bill.
As proxies for the public, journalists are always alert to situations where accountability and transparency are placed at odds with one another.
This bill does just that.
This bill does not increase transparency in the state of New Mexico. And in some key areas, it actually reduces transparency.
For example, it appears to take enforcement of the state’s Campaign Reporting Act away from the Secretary of State’s Office — where complaints are public when filed.
Instead this bill vests a largely secret board with the power to investigate and render decisions on those complaints.
We’re also concerned that the legislation gives this new board, if created, a charge to enforce the civil penalties in the state’s public records law.
Today, the state’s Attorney General is charged with enforcing those provisions. When those complaints are filed with the AG, they are public record.
It’s unclear exactly what the bill’s authors intend in terms of enforcement of our state’s sunshine laws.
But the Rio Grande Chapter does not like the vague hints dropped in this legislation about removing that authority from an entity that has law enforcement powers and legally-mandated transparency.
Legislators are accountable to those who elected them — and even those who didn’t.
It is our job as journalists to ensure that this accountability comes from the outside, to ensure a non-conflicted set of eyes examines and presents to the public issues related to ethics in government.
By hiding the existence and results of ethics complaints — ethics complaints! — legislators are asking voters and citizens to trust public officials to judge themselves.
Again, reading this bill, it remains unclear exactly what its authors intend in terms of enforcement of our state’s sunshine laws.
And while the Rio Grande Chapter would like to see the Office of the Attorney General take more aggressive action toward agencies that violate IPRA and OMA, we do not support the provision of this bill which would take civil enforcement of those important laws away from the Attorney General.
We are concerned that the bill’s authors appear to suggest that complaints to the NM Secretary of State would come to the board instead.
We do not support efforts to take governance of the Campaign Reporting Act from the Secretary of State’s Office.
We are sensitive to the problems this proposed legislation claims to cure: political campaigning has, indeed, become nasty business both in New Mexico and around the nation.
Legislators are rightly concerned about what can turn into campaign fodder.
Past experience — as with your decision in 2009 to archive webcasting and committee hearings — tells us that your concerns will not materialize.
Beyond that, however, it was neither journalists nor the public we stand in for who chose to turn the occasion of running for elected office into what amounts to a mud wrestling competition.
Neither journalists, nor the public should be the ones to suffer the consequences of dirty politics by surrendering our right to know how you are operating.
In short, ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature, you chose to become public figures. No one forced you to run for office.
To quote Hunter S. Thompson, an esteemed member of our profession, ‘Buy the ticket, take the ride.’
Transparency can no longer be a word people mention during their campaign speeches–and then manipulate or mis-use once, as lawmakers, they are in positions of power to affect true change in New Mexico.
In the future when crafting bills like this one, or any involving transparency — which the public obviously deserves from its elected leaders — we invite legislators to reach out to the Rio Grande Chapter. Our board of directors, and our members, would be happy to meet with you.
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.