COMMENTARY: Last week the New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, and the Kansas City Star all carried stories about New Mexico’s latest public corruption scandal — the charges against its chief ethics officer, Secretary of State Dianna Duran.
Broadcasters, too, have been busy on the national front. And Duran’s hearing in court this week and the start of House impeachment proceedings are producing even more stories.
Also last week, a state agency which purports to create “real accountability” was required by Santa Fe District Judge Sarah Singleton to pay more than $14,000 in legal reimbursements to the National Education Association-New Mexico for failing to acknowledge the public’s right-to-know under provisions of our state Inspection of Public Records Act.
The Public Education Department claimed certain “facts” about our public schools they could not prove, and which they used to deceive the Legislature and the public to support their seriously flawed teacher evaluation system. Rather than contritely admitting they made false claims, that agency responded by attacking the group that brought forth the public-interest action, the National Education Association-New Mexico.
These ongoing stories fuel the perception our state is corrupt and our state departments are unable or unwilling to hold elected officials accountable for their behavior — in this case the alleged diversion of campaign funds and refusing to provide public records. New Mexico consistently flunks state report cards when it comes to the common measures of corruption — transparency, executive agency accountability, and public access to information.
In the schools, it becomes increasingly harder for teachers to point to political leaders as examples for children to follow — and “Character Counts” is at risk of becoming an empty phrase. Doubly so when the leaders who fail to meet ethical standards are in the offices of the Secretary of State and the Public Education Department.
Inability to deal with ‘bad apples’
New Mexicans themselves start with a poor self-image. Last year, eight in ten New Mexico voters told Research and Polling that corruption is a problem here; only 19 percent believe elected officials are more responsive to voters than they are to lobbyists and special interests.
I know the overwhelming majority of folks in Santa Fe are hardworking, honest public servants. But our institutional inability to deal with the “bad apples” before they reach the courtroom — or the impeachment stage — is coming home to roost.
One way most states have dealt with this problem is through an independent, non-partisan ethics commission, a solution consistently favored by over 80 percent of registered voters.
New Mexico is one of only eight states that do not have such an animal. Most of the time, to ensure accountability, we have relied on transparency, the media, or the honor system.
Transparency has taken us far. A web-based, campaign finance reporting system has been key in bringing the current situation in the Secretary of State’s Office to light. The courts are enforcing the Inspection of Public Records Act so state agencies will increase compliance. And the media has done its job.
Time for a public outcry
Ensuring accountability of all elected and appointed officials is not a partisan issue. It is a public issue that goes to the core of democracy. It’s time for a public outcry. With scandal after scandal, the reputation of our state deteriorating by the day, we are currently at an ethics tipping point.
Once we are over it, we can get back to the real issues facing our state like sufficiently funding our schools and educating our kids to be successful, productive and engaged citizens.
Charles Bowyer is Executive Director of the National Education Association-New Mexico.