New Mexico

Editorial: NM can’t afford to go backward on government transparency

“You just can’t endorse transparency as a policy and support that.”

– Albuquerque Journal editorial, February 7, 2021, on a proposal to keep most names of candidates for state jobs secret

We’ve said it before and unfortunately we have to say it again. Keeping the names of government job candidates secret under the guise of being the best doesn’t count when their names are public knowledge simply doesn’t outweigh the risk/reward trade-off.

They could get better applicants—although in 1989, when the Journal, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and KOB-TV sued the University of New Mexico over candidate names in their presidential search, “the university could not produce empirical data conducting an open search to a shortage of qualified candidates.”

But you will open the door to possible discrimination, nepotism and nepotism. In this 1989 case, Juan Jose Peña, a distinguished Army veteran, activist, and federal court interpreter, testified that although his family, like many others, had lived in the state for generations, Hispanics and other minorities faced discrimination in hiring. If only the names of the finalists were known, decision-makers could claim that there were no qualified minority or female candidates and keep all evidence to the contrary confidential.

The judge understood the meaning of Peña’s eloquent testimony and dropped the UNM’s search. The state legislature summarily approved a requirement of five public finalists for university presidents, which is far from ideal. Talman’s bill would limit this even further — it requires only three finalists to be announced.

Subsequent court decisions have rightly made applications and resumes for all other public positions — be it district chiefs or police chiefs — public under current law.

And although Peña died in 2018, it’s important to remember that his point of view came from someone who has lived in our state for decades; who chaired the Hispanic Roundtable and GI Forum and was a founding member of the Partido de la Raza Unida de Nuevo Mexico; who has been described as “one of the most important civil rights activists of our generation”.

And yet, in 2023, Democratic Senator Bill Tallman of Albuquerque — himself a retired city manager — is sponsoring Senate Bill 63 to return to the old days of backroom deals. He got the majority of his fellow senators on the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee to buy his non-disclosure rationale: Moe Maestas, Gerald Ortiz y Pino, Martin Hickey, Brenda McKenna and Antionette Sedillo Lopez, all Democrats from Albuquerque, and Gregg Schmedes, a Tijeras Republican , showed with their votes where they really stand on transparent, accountable government.

Only Republican Sens. David Gallegos of Eunice and Stuart Ingle of Portales advocated transparent hiring in government jobs. Unfortunately they were outnumbered.

Apparently, Tallman, Maestas, Ortiz y Pino, Hickey, McKenna, Sedillo Lopez, and Schmedes overlooked that the 1989 lawsuit proved that highly qualified Hispanic candidates had indeed been passed over — and sometimes didn’t even get an interview.

And that in subsequent secret-search trials ranging from the Carlsbad City Manager to the Farmington City Manager, the courts weighed the competing interests of applicant pools and transparency, and chose transparency.

And that in 2008, UNM saw then-President David Schmidly’s son as best qualified for a newly created job as “Associate Director of Sustainability” at $94,000 a year. After the Journal requested the applicants’ public records, it emerged that the former private sector marketing director had beaten award-winning environmentalists, engineers and individuals with a track record in sustainability at UNM. Schmidly’s son retired a week later.

How can seven of our senators actually think we should go back to a system that would have allowed the names of most of these candidates to be kept secret?

The bill now lies in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he must die a well-deserved death. If transparency and accountability are just lip service and make it all the way to the Senate, House of Representatives or our governor, we urge those considering the bill to remember Juan Jose Peña, the discrimination and shenanigans, who have been an integral part of hiring governments, as officials value secrecy and support the public’s right to know.

3 bills that support transparency

Meanwhile, kudos to the architects of the $6.4 million Additional Spending Act moving forward in the Senate for including the requirement that it states which state legislature sponsored each appropriation into the bill. For too long lawmakers have been able to hide who gives how many public dollars to whom (although there have been candid lawmakers who routinely publicize what they sponsor).

And cheers to two bills that require more transparency from lobbyists — SB 217 would require them to report their compensation from each employer, and SB 218 would require them to report which bills they lobby for and what positions they hold take on them. Both will help the public know who is doing what and who is trying to pull government levers. The former is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces and, in an about-face to good government, Schmedes. The latter by Steinborn and Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

The Public Records Inspection Act assumes openness – that citizens are entitled to the widest possible amount of information about their government.

And voters need to remember every lawmaker who votes against it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is not signed as it represents the opinion of the newspaper and not that of the authors.

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