The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Law could damage public access

 

March 11, 2020



The governor gives and the governor takes away.

For transparency advocates at least, that’s what it felt like last week when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law two bills related to government transparency.

Let’s start with Senate Bill 64, which reverses a practice used under Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration that tucks away for six months public inspection of settlements in damage claims against state agencies. By signing SB64 into law, Lujan Grisham made such settlements immediately accessible to the public, meaning we can now see how much of our taxpayer dollars are going to pay for the mistakes of state agencies and officials.

It’s a no-brainer that the taxpaying public should have a right to know — immediately, not six months later — the costs of these settlements, which is why the bill sailed through both the Senate and House with unanimous votes.

What’s a little more difficult to interpret, however, is House Bill 364, which updates the state’s Public Employee Bargaining Act and sets a timeline for restructuring and standardizing the policies and practices of the state’s local labor boards, some of which might be disbanded under this new law.

Criticism of HB364 came from three directions. One is that it will usurp local labor board powers. Another is that it was railroaded through the Legislature, cleverly done via a “dummy bill” that allowed its supporters to bypass the normal committee process and get it placed up for floor votes in time for passage in the 11th hour of the session.

The biggest rub against it, however, lies in its language.

Last week, just three days before the governor signed HB364 into law, the state’s premiere open-government advocate, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (NMFOG), sent Lujan Grisham a letter urging her to veto the bill.

“There are provisions in the bill that would exempt from public inspection such things as public employees’ hire dates, their salaries, their work locations and their work telephone number,” states the letter signed by NMFOG’s executive director, Melanie Majors, and its president, Susan Boe. “The public has a right to know who is working on their behalf, where the employee is working and their salary.”

Their objection lies in a provision that requires public employers to turn over employees’ personal and employment information to labor groups representing those workers and that “notwithstanding any provision contained in the Inspection of Public Records Act, the public employer shall not disclose the information … to a third party.”

That “third party,” NMFOG contends, is the public.

Not so, the governor’s administration contends.

“There is no infringement upon or contravention of the public’s right to public information within this law,” Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s director of communications, said in a news release last week. “What was publicly accessible is very much still publicly accessible.”

We’ll have to wait and see if this law becomes a barrier to public access of basic employee information, but NMFOG is now pushing its reconsideration in next year’s legislative session, to clean up the language in question.

Assuming there’s nothing sneaky going on here, this seems to be a debate over unintended consequences.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at:

[email protected]

 
 

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