Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

4-16 More Sunshine Needed

FRI, 4-16-10

SANTA FE - There was much rejoicing among fans of open government about passage of the "Sunshine Portal" bill, which will provide New Mexicans with computer access to the state's financial documents.
Previously it was necessary to file an Inspection of Public Records request and often necessary to travel to Santa Fe to view documents. That information will become available online beginning in July of next year.
Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who signed the legislation in the absence of Gov. Bill Richardson, said, "This is information the public should have had all along."
She's right. Legislation should not be necessary to require the government to reveal what it is doing. The public foots the bill for every operation of state government. We should be able to freely discover what is being done with our money.
Without congressional prodding, President Barack Obama recently announced a major open government initiative requiring executive agencies to create their own open government plans.
Obama promised more government transparency during his presidential campaign and quickly moved to encourage his top governmental appointees to make frequently requested information available to everyone on a new Web site The result has been a decrease in Freedom of Information Act requests.
The same thing could be happening at the state level if the governor and all other statewide elected officials were to direct everyone under them to make data available as easily and quickly as possible.
If Lt. Gov. Denish becomes governor, she pledges more openness. On the GOP side of the gubernatorial contest, Rep. Janice Arnold Jones already has proven her dedication to legislative transparency by defying the wishes of House leaders that she not Webcast meetings of the committees on which she serves.
The resulting publicity caused a reluctant House and Senate to grudgingly allow limited telecasting and audio feeds of floor sessions. Some open government advocates are now referring to Arnold-Jones as the Sunshine Queen.
If we are to see more openness in state government, several actions will be necessary. All employees with any responsibility for providing information to the public need to be trained. The Attorney General's Office provides such training around the state but numerous reports indicate that the message is not getting through.
Some people are being asked for identification and for the reason they want information. Requests are being denied because they are not asked exactly in the manner desired or they are incorrectly told the information does not exist.
And responses are delayed an unreasonable amount of time. I am fond of claiming a world record in that category. Early in my journalistic career I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Treasury Department for any material they had on the effort to hunt treasure inside Victorio Peak in southern New Mexico.
The treasure hunt had been mentioned in testimony by John Dean during the Watergate hearings. Subsequent news reports had mentioned involvement by the Treasury Department but I was told by a Treasury official that the department had no file on the subject.
A few years ago, I received a call from that Treasury official saying that he was cleaning out files prior to retirement and found my request in the department's Victorio Peak file. He apologized for the delay of some 20 years and asked if I would like him to copy the file and send it to me.
As expected, I didn't learn anything new from the information and I doubt I received the entire file. Maybe I'll make another request and see if Obama's transparency initiative produces any more results.



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