Oh, the irony.
It’s Sunshine Week, the annual reminder of the merits of open government and the dangers of secrecy. And here New Mexico is, channeling the subterranean netherworld in the Harry Potter novel The Chamber of Secrets.
The chamber of secrets is a scary place abounding with dangers, a dark world abetted by secrecy. Which, if you think about recent events in New Mexico officialdom, sounds familiar.
Four University of New Mexico regents vote to stage a takeover of the university’s Health Science Center (HSC) — a plan made public three days before the vote, one day after the two regents who eventually opposed the plan were made aware.
And, folks, that’s just this week.
Earlier this month New Mexico In Depth discovered one of the only bills to pass the Legislature meant to increase openness actually created more secrecy for lobbyists who wine and dine state lawmakers, not less.
Meanwhile, three-quarters of New Mexico state lawmakers continue to keep secret how they allocate public money to pay for projects around the state.
Yes, the culture of secrecy is strong with New Mexico officialdom, in both spectacular and everyday ways.
My colleague Laura Paskus has written about one of the routine government practices that dampen openness – a state agency not responding to her questions for months, forcing her to file records requests.
And colleague Jeff Proctor last month encountered silence from the Albuquerque Police Department as officials ignored multiple e-mails and texts sent asking for a response as he was reporting a story.
The list could go on and on:
- Gov. Susana Martinez refusing to open her political calendar to public scrutiny.
- Her New Mexico Human Services Department repeatedly refusing to publicly release an audit used to accuse several behavioral health organizations of Medicaid fraud – a crime for which the New Mexico Attorney General’s office so far has cleared 13 of the 15 organizations. An investigation on the remaining two organizations is ongoing.
Imagine the possible different outcomes had the public vetted the audit before the Martinez administration accused the organizations and shut off government money, forcing several to close their doors. The public might have highlighted the audit’s flaws, saving the administration from embarrassment and lawsuits from several of the accused organizations. My prediction is that the administration’s actions will cost more taxpayer money before it’s over.
My point is this: As a journalist who has covered politics off and on for nearly 30 years, I’ve learned secrecy is the helpmate to the abuses of power. It isn’t a temptation infecting one political party over another.
Elected officials and many who work for them try to block information that could cast their boss or his or her actions in a negative light or muddy their messaging to the public. Whether out of a strategic decision to guard political capital to achieve long-term goals or from a desire to keep their boss electable, or one of a myriad other reasons, the result is the same: it is damaging to democracy.
Because power employed to stanch a free flow of ideas, or facts, or data, or even everyday information is inimical to a self-governing citizenry – an ideal envisioned by our country’s founding generation and one that has been improved upon by successive generations throughout our history.
Operating like a chamber of secrets is not good for any of us — you, me, our neighbors. It is especially not good for a democracy.