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Happy 238th Birthday, America! It’s also the birthday of the Federal Freedom of Information Act, which appropriately was born on the Fourth of July in 1966. We hope all Americans — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — will observe this day by remembering the values that unite rather than divide us.
We authors of this editorial — a Democrat and a Republican — disagree on many issues, but we find common ground on the importance of transparency in government-one of the major principles upon which our country was founded several generations ago.
A recent article in the New Yorker magazine noted that at the time Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, “the mystery of state, in which a king was crowned by the hand of God, yielded to a democracy in which the rulers are elected and the secrets of state are made public.” This concept of transparency was further embedded in the Constitution, a direct response to prior abuses of the British crown such as arbitrary arrests and property confiscations.
We are fortunate that our founders knew that a strong democracy depended upon government that was subject to public scrutiny and criticism. They also knew this is possible only when executive, legislative and judicial decision-making is open to the public.
However, despite our country’s best intentions, the tendency of those in power, irrespective of political affiliation, was to ignore the foundation upon which the United States was established and to conduct business in secret. In fact, it wasn’t until July 4, 1966, almost 200 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law-a bill that enjoyed bipartisan support, passing the House of Representatives 307-0.
But even FOIA lacked any teeth until 1974 when it was amended in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of a president whose administration’s secret dealings caused his demise.
After passage of the federal sunshine laws, states enacted their own public records and open meetings laws. New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act was passed in 1974. The state’s sunshine laws were substantially amended in 1993 through a wide collaboration that brought together an alliance of civic organizations and political philosophies. In the years that followed, a bipartisan coalition of legislators struggled successfully to open up the legislative process, with public conference committees, webcast floor sessions and committee hearings, and a sunshine portal that put state government information up on the web for the public and the media to use.
With the significant signings that took place on July 4, 1776, and 1966, the ideals of an open society have generally thrived thanks to the insistence of concerned citizens and the press that national security, personal privacy and law enforcement cannot trump the need for transparency. All Americans should remember the advice of President Jefferson who said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people-they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
As we pause on July 4 to commemorate our nation’s birth, let us come together to protect our democracy by insisting upon a government conducted under the principles of transparency envisioned 238 years ago. Secrecy for any reason violates the vision of an open government so boldly proclaimed on that first Fourth of July.
Dede Feldman, a former Democratic state senator from Albuquerque, and Doug Turner, a former Republican candidate for New Mexico governor, are both members of the Board of Directors of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the state’s leading advocacy group for open meetings and public records. For more information, visit nmfog.org.