Still fighting for more transparency

By Sarah Welsh: Guest columnist

Twenty years ago this month, Bob Johnson hung out the shingle for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and began soliciting members. The free open-government hotline started ringing that day, and it hasn’t stopped since.

Bob wasn’t starting from square one. NM-FOG had been officially incorporated the summer before, in June 1989. And boy, did it hit the ground running. At an April 21, 1990, meeting, the board of directors was already receiving updates on a lawsuit against the University of New Mexico. UNM refused to release the names of candidates for president, and that lawsuit eventually led to a settlement agreement and a change in state public-records law.

Ironically, we’re still fighting that fight. The Dines & Gross Law Firm, representing the Daily Times and NM-FOG, won a lawsuit last summer against the city of Farmington. The city had refused to release non-finalist city-manager applications, and the case went up to the state Appeals Court. Then last fall, Espanola’s Northern New Mexico College said it thought the requirement to release five presidential finalists’ names was an infringement of the college’s constitutional rights.

It certainly makes you shake your head. But I don’t find it discouraging. Rather, I think it shows the importance of sustained vigilance.

The tension between individual rights and government power will never go away. Bureaucracies will always be as secretive as possible. Public officials will always fight to cover up evidence of malfeasance and mismanagement.

Against that huge force for secrecy, there needs to be a constant counterweight, pushing back in the name of transparency.

That’s what NM-FOG is for. If we the people want to exert control over our government, we have to constantly assert our right to access information. And NM-FOG is working year-round to help you exercise that right.

And let’s not forget the successes of the last 20 years. The Inspection of Public Records Act is one of the strongest of its kind in the nation, and legislative conference committees are finally open to the public. Thanks to education efforts by NM-FOG and the attorney general’s office, nearly all public officials are aware of their obligations under sunshine laws.

Sure, they may quibble with this or that provision of public-records or open-meetings law, (and they may actively flout those provisions) but they can no longer claim complete surprise or ignorance when confronted with the law.

And on the flip side, more and more citizens are using the law to liberate public information. The NM-FOG hotline fielded 24 calls last month alone.

So I’m celebrating FOG’s 20th anniversary by responding to citizen complaints and contacting agencies who have violated the Inspection of Public Records Act. It’s 20 years down, and many more to go. Happy anniversary!