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Officials should follow transparency

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Open government advocates came to Santa Fe this past legislative session with a game plan for improving the public’s right to know, but even with the enthusiasm of some great team players in the House and Senate, there just wasn’t enough time on the clock for us to score a win for transparency in New Mexico.
 We’ve got the better part of a year to build a bigger team of sunshine champs and then we’re going to bring our A game to the 60-day session in 2013. In the meantime, public officials who say they support transparency should lead by example and not wait for new laws to force them to do the right thing.
One of our priorities in this session was making public meeting agendas available 72 hours in advance (instead of the current 24 hours). Despite bipartisan support, the bill never got a vote on the Senate floor.
But we don’t need to wait until 2013 to improve access to public meetings. March 11-17 is Sunshine Week, the perfect time to make a bold move for transparency.
Public bodies should step up now and post their agendas and related documents online 72 hours in advance of their meetings. Why not? Posting the information online saves staff time and resources otherwise spend fielding individual requests for the documents. And it increases the community’s confidence that office-holders aren’t trying to hide anything. Mayor Richard Berry deserves a big high-five for moving to do this in Albuquerque-other cities and counties should take that ball and run with it.
It’s also high time that more public bodies get up the courage to start webcasting their meetings-before they’re required to do it. Webcasting allows a bigger, more diverse group of people to become better informed about the issues facing their community. And an unedited official archive of the meeting gives everyone a source of information they can trust. That’s a win-win for us all.
With the Sunshine Portal and ABQ View, the state and the City of Albuquerque have already demonstrated great leadership by giving the public access to important data. We should continue improving access to information about roads, schools, hospitals, taxes and other things that affect our daily lives.
Government data sets are the ultimate public record and we need to do more to ensure that the public has access to this information. When software developers have access to raw public data, they can create applications that give citizens detailed, customized information about everything from pollution to potholes.
Think about it: Want to find out which are the best schools in your town-from your phone? There could be an app for that!
But too often we lock this data away and only give it out to a few private companies who pay for it. Sure, it earns some cash for some agencies, but it smothers the potential for innovation and services that community members really want. More importantly, limiting access to public data this way sets a bad example fiscal responsibility and fairness.
State and local leaders should follow the federal government’s lead and release all public, non-confidential data to its rightful owners - the public - in an open, machine-readable format on a fair, copyright-free basis.
When public bodies do this the rewards are tangible-and recognized. Just this week, Sunshine Review recognized some great transparency websites in New Mexico by giving Sunny Awards to Albuquerque Public Schools, the City of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, Las Cruces Public Schools, the City of Las Cruces, the City of Rio Rancho, Santa Fe County, Santa Fe Public Schools and the City of Santa Fe.
Being open and transparent isn’t always easy for government to do, but it’s always the right thing do. We can all help score a win for the public by working proactively to spread sunshine all over New Mexico.

 The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (www.nmfog.org) is the state’s leading advocate for transparency in public affairs. In our 22-year history, FOG has helped thousands of citizens break down the closed doors of government through education, direct intervention and litigation.
Gwyneth Doland
NMFOG executive
director