Sunshine group needs to become insurgent

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Heath Haussamen

I was shocked last week to learn that I could have shared the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government’s highest honor with Gov. Susana Martinez and Attorney General Gary King.

Each year, the nonprofit gives its Dixon Award to people who “serve as an inspiration” for their work to “pry open closed doors.” This year, FOG honored me with the award. I’ve spent much of my career shining light on officials – including King and Martinez – who have operated in the dark.

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

Despite the fact that King and Martinez have too often closed doors in the public’s face, rather than prying them open, FOG’s Board president, Terri Cole, proposed to fellow board members that the organization honor King and Martinez during its annual awards ceremony this year.

That FOG would consider such an action is ludicrous. This is an organization whose mission is helping people understand and exercise their rights under sunshine laws and the First Amendment.

While King, a Democrat, has served as attorney general, two judges have found his office in violation of the Inspection of Public Records Act for withholding records from former employees suing for discrimination.

Several high-ranking employees in Martinez’s administration, including the Republican governor herself, were secretly using private email accounts to conduct public business early in her tenure. And until recently she was keeping schedules of her events secret. Only after pressure from the public and journalists did Martinez order her administration to stop using private email and release schedules – and the schedules she has posted on her website are incomplete.

Both officials have also kept secret most of an audit of behavioral health providers used to justify freezing Medicaid funds, a move that has affected tens of thousands of New Mexicans. The organization I work for, New Mexico In Depth, and the Las Cruces Sun-News contend withholding the audit is illegal and are suing the Human Services Department (HSD) to try to win its release.

FOG is also suing King and HSD to try to win release of the audit.

NM doesn’t need conciliators

Meanwhile, behind the scenes at FOG, Cole suggested honoring King and Martinez for taking positive steps on the use of email.

Public pressure forced Martinez to order state employees to stop using private email for public business. King declared that government emails – including those sent by legislators – are public record if they relate to public business even if they’re sent using privately owned accounts.

Referring to Martinez, Cole – who is CEO of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce – wrote in an email to other FOG board members that the organization “should recognize excellence when it happens and not get too caught up in the decision making process it takes for high level people to ultimately do the right thing,” according to The Santa Fe New Mexican.

That’s outrageous reasoning coming from the woman who heads the state’s leading transparency group. FOG should be dedicated to fighting for an informed and empowered citizenry. It should be insurgent, not conciliatory. And yet, even as FOG prepared to sue both officials for the health audit, it looks like Cole hoped to throw them a bone to lessen the blow of the lawsuit.

Some members of FOG’s vast, 24-member board disagree with Cole. During the email discussion among board members, FOG Board treasurer Gregory P. Williams wrote that he didn’t like “the idea of honoring a governmental entity just for following the law, and for doing so only when forced to after more than a year of not following the law.”

But sometimes thinking like Cole’s wins the day. FOG was too quick to praise Martinez in mid-September for releasing calendars that include a whole lot of blank spaces where political and other events should be listed. In spite of that, Martinez can now cite FOG’s admiration to argue that she’s a shining beacon of transparency.

Additional changes needed

Given FOG’s history with Martinez, its board members should guard against aligning too closely with her. In July 2012, I publicly called for an end to lawyer Pat Rogers’ tenure on the FOG board – despite his history of fighting for government transparency – because his political activism and actions helped create the appearance that the Martinez administration’s controversial contract with the Downs at Albuquerque was an insider deal.

Emails between Rogers and others revealed that the Martinez administration had been using private email for public business. Under pressure, Rogers, the Republican National Committeeman for New Mexico, resigned from the FOG board.

FOG has made other positive changes recently. The board expanded its executive committee to decentralize power. It has added members who diversify the organization’s ideology and increased the number of journalists on the board. FOG’s lawsuit against the AG and HSD is also heartening.

But to maintain credibility as an advocate for transparency in the public interest, FOG needs to make additional changes.

For instance, Democrat Martin Esquivel, the president of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education, serves on FOG’s board as vice president. An elected official should not sit on FOG’s board. Government officials shouldn’t oversee a group that holds government officials accountable.

In addition, a woman who seeks to appease politicians shouldn’t lead FOG’s board.

Since the 2007 death of Bob Johnson, FOG’s first director, the organization has had a revolving cast of executive directors. Johnson, a cantankerous and passionate defender of sunshine laws, wasn’t afraid to pick a fight with anyone. With another director search underway, let’s hope FOG hires someone who is as committed as Johnson to transparency, someone who is unafraid to challenge power.

And let’s hope FOG’s board empowers that person to be insurgent, rather than standing in his or her way. An organization with the focus and courage to pick necessary fights could play an instrumental role in bettering New Mexico by making its government more honest.