Good News, Bad News in New Mexico

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First, the good news: The Land of Enchantment launched a new campaign finance site this month which aims to put more useful information into the hands of citizens, and I have to say it looks pretty good and works even better. Search works well, and allows New Mexicans to narrow the results to reports from a specific election or to examine all the data ever reported by a candidate. One can also search for individual contributors, companies or political action committees. Once a report is found, the site provides several options for download: Word document, PDF and HTML for starters, but more importantly for reporters and developers, XML and CSV.

A campaign finance report filed by Diane DenishThe only real drawback I’ve found is the lack of a bulk download option or an API. Unless I’m missing something, at the moment it’s very time-consuming to locate and then compile data from more than one report. For example, the largest employer from my hometown is the mining company Freeport-McMoRan. You can find it’s PAC using the new reporting system, but to get a big picture of where its campaign money goes to you’d have to open each individual report, export it, and then copy all the information into one spreadsheet:

Campaign Finance Reports for Freeport-McMoRan

Regardless, this is leaps and bounds ahead of where citizens in New Mexico where last year, and hopefully the Secretary of State will continue to improve the site during this election cycle.

Now for the bad news: A report by the New Mexico Independent shows that many governmental bodies within the state aren’t abiding by open meetings laws. How bad is it?

New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act is meant to help ensure public involvement and to prevent backroom deals in state and local government, but violations of the law are widespread, an investigation by The Independent has found. School boards, universities, town councils, county and state commissions, and boards across the state have broken the law, casting a shroud of secrecy over government officials’ deliberations and bargaining.

If my experience as a reporter in New Mexico is any indication, the problem is even more systemic than described in the report, as officials will often live up to the letter of the law but not the spirit. The main issue observed in the NMI report the executive session, where a town council or other type of commission will remove itself from a public meeting to discuss certain issues in private. Now, the scope of what can be discussed in executive discussion is pretty narrow, and the method for calling one even narrower. In New Mexico, advance notice must be given on a public agenda, and the reasons for entering the executive session must be identified.

Of the 17 New Mexico counties with closed sessions listed for recent county commission meetings, only two — Taos and Quay counties — complied with the law, listing both the legal authority for entering closed sessions and the specific topics to be discussed, The Independent found.

Ten counties had no website or did not post meeting agendas on their websites. Harding County’s website posts links to agendas, but those links were not functioning. Rio Arriba County’s web page for meeting agendas was empty.

There has to be a reasonable expectation that some government action takes place behind closed doors: when employee personnel issues are being discussed, for instance, or when national security is at stake. But this has to be coupled with the expectation that citizens must know why they’re being shut out of the process.

All that said, this is one example of the many cultural issues our community faces within government, but it is also an educational opportunity for citizens. There’s an old saying, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” but many government workers—at every level—lack detailed knowledge of open government laws. Others might drag their feet, trying to avoid the release of embarrassing info. Logistical problems are prevalent as well, as open government is never a big funding priority. We, as citizens, must start demanding compliance with those laws and the creation of better laws. Otherwise, we share some of the blame.

Finally, since we haven’t talked about New Mexico enough today, I wanted to bring your attention to another recent news story highlighting a list of state transparency fixes that was drafted by the Rio Grande Foundation, a non-profit based in New Mexico. Most of the items would advance the interests of state residents and would provide some needed accountability in the Santa Fe. It’s a good piece to chew on as our community works to develop it’s own open government checklist. If you’d like to be involved in the process, sign up to be part of the Public Equals Online campaign.

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