By Sara Welsch
Well, we’ve come full circle. Five years ago, Bill Richardson’s administration was asked for state e-mails about an audit of the driver’s license program. It refused, claiming executive privilege, and the Republican Party of New Mexico filed suit.
This year, Secretary of State Dianna Duran was asked for state e-mails about a similar audit — a cross-check between drivers’ licenses and voter rolls. Duran’s office refused, citing executive privilege, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has now filed suit.
It’s a stunning parallel, and the bipartisan principles underpinning open government are rarely on such obvious display. Open government is not a tool of the left or the right, of Democrats or Republicans. It’s simply a tool to hold powerful people accountable.
It goes back to the old adage that information is power. Authorities always seek to control the message and the debate, and freedom-of-information laws guarantee that citizens can peer behind the veil and see what’s really going on. As New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels wrote in a recent opinion, “In order for government to truly be of the people and by the people, and not just for the people, our citizens must be able to know what their own public servants are doing in their name.”
Both the Republican Party of New Mexico and the ACLU-New Mexico sued the government under the same state law: the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). That law states its purpose plainly: “All persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees.”
In practice, IPRA forces government agencies to release documents that they would rather hold onto. It’s that simple. We don’t need a law to force the release of records that make the current administration look good, or make its political foes look bad. Officials are always happy to release those documents. And without the rights guaranteed by IPRA, that’s all the public would get — a constant stream of “aren’t we great” news.
The drafters of IPRA knew that government officials would be suspicious of anyone wanting to see the bad news, or even the bald facts. We see this manifested whenever the political motives or moral character of people seeking public records are brought into question. The drafters also knew that the government would throw up roadblocks to prevent or delay the release of unflattering records. So IPRA has a few clear and straightforward guidelines.
1. No one asking for records can be required to state the purpose of their request. Political requesters may be playing politics, commercial requesters may be making money, and muckraking citizens may be educating the public (or playing politics and making money). It’s irrelevant. Each person has the same right to see public information. After all, do we really want the government deciding who is worthy and unworthy of checking the facts?
2. The government has to release requested records, within 15 days, unless there’s another law that allows withholding. “Trust us, we’ll release it according to our schedule” does not suffice as a response.
3. If the government denies your request without a valid reason, or just drags its feet indefinitely, you can sue them. And if you win, they have to reimburse you for the time and money you spent fighting in court.
Again, although IPRA lawsuits often play a part in larger policy and political dramas, the battle over information is ultimately not a partisan struggle. It is a struggle between the few who happen to be in power at the moment, and the rest of us.
If citizens want to hold a position of power, exercising control of our government, we must support a strong and enforceable Inspection of Public Records Act. A strong records law ensures that no matter who we are or what we believe, we can each be as informed and engaged as we want to be.
It’s important that we know our rights, and that we exercise them. That’s what the Republican Party was doing when it sued the Office of the Governor in 2006, and that’s what the ACLU did last week when it sued the Secretary of State’s Office. These groups’ defense of the public’s right to know accrues to the benefit of all of us.
Sarah Welsh is executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. She may be reached at toll free at 888-843-9121 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.