COMMENTARY: This year our New Mexico State Legislature has a landmark opportunity to pass and embrace the long sought-after independent and transparent ethics commission for both the legislative and executive branches of government. The judiciary branch has its Judicial Standards Commission.
Representative Jeff Steinborn and I are sponsoring the bipartisan House Joint Resolution 5. The resolution passed the House of Representatives on a bipartisan 50-10 vote. It is now in the New Mexico State Senate.
We need to offer our citizens an opportunity to vote in favor of this resolution in November, joining with us in establishing this commission. The commission will then be enshrined in our state Constitution as an amendment. Because it would be an amendment, the resolution establishes the framework for the commission, and enabling legislation would be necessary during the 2017 session in order to provide the details of the operation.
A recent poll of 250 business leaders in New Mexico showed that 91 percent of them are concerned about the behavior of our elected officials and its impact on economic development. Another recent poll showed that 85 percent of New Mexicans are now asking our Legislature to take immediate action and create an independent ethics commission.
The commission would consist of nine commissioners, and it would have exclusive jurisdiction over non-criminal violations of the several laws in this area that are already on the books. Also, the commission would issue advisory opinions. Currently, advisory opinions can be obtained from various sources that may not be consistent. Having the commission issue the advisory opinions provides more consistency on a day-to-day basis.
In my short time in the Legislature I have seen that we have a lot of well-intentioned and hard-working public servants. We need to give them consistent guidance that will enhance decision-making.
The main concern expressed by opponents is that they want less transparency in the commission’s operations. After 20 years of successfully trying cases and handling claims involving open government, I believe that for good government in a democracy, we need to follow the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. He said years ago, “Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Transparency brings integrity to the process.
Currently all legislators swear an Oath of Ethical Conduct. All legislators, public officers and employees under the Government Conduct Act are to discharge “ethically the high responsibilities of public service.” Based upon those statements, why would we turn around and then ask our New Mexico citizens to simply “trust us” while the commission operates in secrecy behind closed doors?
HJR 5 provides three simple provisions of transparency. First, once the complaint and response are filed, both are then made public. Second, the commission may dismiss frivolous complaints. Upon dismissal, both the complaint and the basis for dismissal are made public. Third, if the matter proceeds to a hearing, then the hearing will be open to our New Mexico citizens.
Currently, ethics complaints can be filed with various governmental entities. The complainant can provide the complaint to the public on that day. This is allowed because of the First Amendment’s right of free speech. Recently this occurred, and after the complaint was filed a press release was issued.
I have heard that politicians are concerned that the commission’s procedures will open the flood gates for complaints. As described above, those gates have been available for a long time. This issue comes down to who we protect: the public or politicians?
I believe one of the pillars of ethical conduct is transparency. As we know from the old saying: Placing a candle in a room under a basket does not bring light to the room, and it is of no use.
Jim Dines is the state representative for District 20 in southeast Albuquerque.