Off and On: Open government important to us all

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By The Staff

New Mexico recently celebrated Sunshine Week, a time in which we all think about open government.Open government is important to all of us; it is not just a newspaper or media thing. The public needs to understand how important it is to lift the veil of secrecy from the workings of our government. And it’s something we should focus on year-round.There was a bill in the Legislature that would have opened conference committees to the public. The bill was introduced by Sen. Joe Carraro (SB205).The Legislature came within one vote last year of passing this measure and it fell short again this year, This bill is important as it brings home the point that our government should be open to all of us.If we are to have a truly democratic process then the work of our elected committees should be open.In 43 other states, conference committees are open to the public.Now, despite Gov. Richardson’s statement while on the campaign trail during his short-lived presidential campaign that he supports open government and as president “would ensure that the obsessive secrecy of the Bush administration will be rolled back,” he did little to support the New Mexico bill.Richardson, responding to the Sunshine Week 2008: Sunshine Campaign Questionnaire, noted, “The public must and will have access to information about what its government is doing, and in the absence of a compelling reason, it will have that access.”Well and good, let’s hope next session he pushes the bill.The Sunshine Campaign is a project of the Sunshine Week 2008 alliance that is working to bring a discussion of open government issues to all election campaigns in 2008, from president to local city councils.The Sunshine Week alliance has begun a yearlong Sunshine Campaign project to bring the discussion of open government issues to election campaigns.But most candidates seem hesitant to support open government.Only three of the presidential candidates – Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Mike Gravel – have responded to the survey, despite repeated efforts by news organizations, prominent members of the Project Vote Smart board and others to compel a reply.And they are now long gone from the scene.Project Vote Smart says it has seen participation in its survey of federal candidates drop from 72 percent in 1968 to 48 percent in 2006.Attorney General Gary King said he plans to ask the Legislature next year to update a New Mexico sunshine law providing better access to public records.One change proposed by King will require governmental bodies to accept e-mail requests for documents under the Inspection of Public Records Act. Currently, the law is unclear whether e-mail are the same as a written request for public records, according to the attorney general’s office.“So what we’re going to be working on is a total revamp of that part of the law so that it meets 21st century standards,” King told The Associated Press.Last year, King’s office issued an advisory opinion on the issue after New Mexico State University decided not to treat e-mail as a valid request for public records.Another proposal by King is to add criminal penalties for some violations of the Inspection of Public Records Act. Currently, a court can award damages, costs and attorneys’ fees to individuals for successful lawsuits to enforce the law after a public records request has been wrongly denied.King said the proposed penalties would mirror those for a violation of the Open Meeting Act, “making it a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $500 for each offense.”The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government supports King’s proposed revisions to the public records law, according to Leonard DeLayo, the foundation’s executive director.But he said, “We have constantly taken the position that e-mail is in fact a written request” under current law.The attorney general also will ask the Legislature to require public disclosure of certain donors to university fundraising foundations. King’s proposal would require donors who are soliciting contracts or doing business with the university to disclose their contributions. Those disclosures would be public records and could be obtained from the university.However, the nonprofit foundation would not be required to make a disclosure of its donors.The issue arose last year and King’s office issued a nonbinding legal opinion concluding that the nonprofit NMSU Foundation was not obligated under the open records law to release the name of its donors.King said he had hoped that lawmakers could consider the sunshine law changes during this year’s 30-day session of the Legislature, but Richardson did not put the proposals on the legislative agenda.Everyone must understand that open records, open meetings - open government - is something we all need, something that is vital to any democracy.Especially ours.Support sunshine laws, support open government.

E-mail Ralph at ralph@lamonitor.com.