Putting the public first when it comes to public information

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By Merilee Dannemann

Some years ago, I was present at a Legislative Finance Committee meeting in Silver City. Legislative committees hold some meetings each year outside Santa Fe, to help make government more accessible to citizens around the state.
Attending the meeting were committee staff plus the usual suspects, state officials and lobbyists. Following committees around the state was part of their job.
 They could have been back in Santa Fe for all the difference the location made. Not a soul from the local community was in attendance, until a dozen or so senior citizens walked in, chaperoned by a staff member of their retirement home.
The secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration was testifying. As is customary, he was facing the committee, had his back to the audience, and was talking in technical language about technical matters.
 To these visitors, he could have been speaking Klingon. The committee chair never acknowledged the visitors either or changed procedure in any way to accommodate them. They sat in bewildered silence.
Various state boards and commissions also tramp around the state with their professional followers in tow. Local residents have a chance to participate, or at least watch and say howdy, but rarely do.
During the years when I was helping to drag the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council to one out-of-town meeting per year (they used to do this, but haven’t since the start of the Richardson administration),
I mulled over the low community participation and thought it would be helpful if the Governor’s Office would publish a comprehensive statewide calendar of all such meetings, organized by date and city, to help citizens connect with events taking place in their own communities.
 So if you were free some Tuesday afternoon and a state commission or legislative committee was in your town, you could stroll over to watch your government in action.  That was before online searchable data bases had become common.
Things are now much more sophisticated. The same open-government fanatics who developed a searchable data base of state employee salaries surely are capable of creating such a data base of government meetings – all boards, commissions, and committees, both executive and legislative.
To the credit of the Governor’s Office, a beginning has been made, however modest and ineffective at this point. At the newmexico.gov website, click on “government,” then “open meetings” for a very short list of upcoming meetings around the state.
Only a few state boards are listed. The Legislative Council Services publishes a list of upcoming interim committee meetings on its website at nmlegis.gov.
Perhaps it’s time to update the Open Meetings Law, which predates the Internet era, to make public notice in a centralized Internet location mandatory, and to require that the notice say something about the topics to be covered.
Current law requires the agenda to be “available to the public” 24 hours in advance, but it doesn’t say what constitutes availability nor does it define “agenda.” Some staffers know how to write minimalist agendas that reveal as little as possible (I’ve done it).
While it’s completely reasonable for agendas to be completed at the last minute, the public should be able to have a general idea of what’s going to be discussed several days in advance.
That would measurably benefit the spirit of open government.  
Contact Merilee Dannemann through triplespacedagain.com.