About that bill to keep most gov’t employee applications secret

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COMMENTARY: Well, I’ve said repeatedly I welcomed legislative discussion about whether applications for government jobs should be public records. Now New Mexico is going to have that discussion.

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

A bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, would exempt “records that would reveal the identity of an applicant for public employment” from release, with one exception: “the name and resume of the finalist for the head of any agency, state institution or political subdivision of the state shall be made available prominently on the entity’s website no fewer than seven days prior to the final decision to hire the individual.”

Papen’s legislation relates to NMPolitics.net’s pending lawsuit against the City of Las Cruces seeking all applications submitted during last year’s search for a new city manager.

Currently in New Mexico, applications for government jobs are considered public records. That’s because of a 2009 Court of Appeals ruling that forced the City of Farmington to release all applications for its city manager job.

The City of Las Cruces, seeking a way around that ruling in response to my request for all city manager applications, released 13 — 11 in one batch and two more later — but dozens of others remain secret because the city says it doesn’t have them. The private company that managed the city’s search has them, the city says — and because they’re not in the hands of the government agency, the government agency doesn’t have to release them.

So we sued seeking the release of all applications. The case is pending.

In the meantime, I wrote this last year:

“I welcome a public policy discussion about whether state law should be changed to, in the future, protect the identity of applicants unless they’re named finalists. I don’t believe such an exemption should be created, but I recognize that many people disagree with me.”

Papen, apparently, is among those who disagree with me.

“People should be able to apply for a job without having their name on the front page of the newspaper if they’re not a finalist,” New Mexico Political Report quoted her as saying.

The N.M. Foundation for Open Government, which litigated the 2009 Farmington case, has a different take.

“Taxpayers have a vested interest in reviewing government sector job candidates to determine if the best qualified professionals are being selected from a diverse pool of applicants to work for them,” Executive Director Peter St. Cyr was quoted by New Mexico Political Report as saying. “Enacting this type of legislation would create an environment ripe for cronyism, which has never served the citizens of this state well.”

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I see two issues. The first is that Papen’s legislation would dramatically roll back transparency law. We’d go from the public having access to all government job applications to only being able to see finalists’ applications — and only for a handful of jobs like city manager, police chief, or school district superintendent.

Speaking of superintendents, it’s worth noting the Las Cruces Public Schools held a search last year for a new superintendent. The district ran a fully transparent process. It informed possible applicants that their résumés would be public record. It released all applications to NMPolitics.net in response to a records request and we posted them online for the world to see.

And — surprise! — the job posting attracted qualified applicants. The school board hired a new superintendent people generally seem happy with thus far.

The second issue I see with Papen’s legislation is the lack of a definition of a finalist. If we’re going to use “finalist” to differentiate whether a job application is public record, we need to know exactly what makes someone a finalist. Did Papen mean for her bill to state “finalist” instead of “finalists?” Does she intend that local governments will only release the name of the one person they intend to hire for a job, and not any other candidates they interview (who are generally considered finalists)?

As I told The Santa Fe New Mexican, the lack of clarity in the legislation creates the opportunity for local officials to define “finalist” narrowly and release few records.

If we’re even going to consider this legislation, it needs to be amended for clarity.

I believe government job applications should be public. Knowing who sought Las Cruces’ top job last year would tell residents something important about how people view their city. For example, did city managers in comparable cities apply? Did private-sector managers apply? Did women and people of color apply? Why or why not?

Without seeing the applications, residents can’t evaluate those questions. We also can’t evaluate the process city councilors used during their search and the decisions they made about who to interview and, ultimately, hire.

Still, I welcome the debate Papen and others are going to have in Santa Fe. It should be interesting — and webcast live on the Internet! The 60-day legislative session begins Tuesday.

Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher.

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