Opposing legislation, as written, to create a state public accountability board

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A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Editor’s note: Laura Paskus, president of the Board of Directors of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande Chapter, spoke on behalf of the board Thursday morning in opposition to legislation, as it’s currently written, to create a state public accountability board. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Damon Ely, D-Corrales. Afterward, members of the House State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee advanced the bill on a vote of 6-3. Here’s Paskus’ statement to the committee:

COMMENTARY: The Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists always appreciates when legislators take an interest in issues related to transparency and public accountability.

However, we do not support the current bill.

As proxies for the public, journalists are always alert to situations where accountability and transparency are placed at odds with one another.

Laura Paskus

Courtesy photo

Laura Paskus

This bill does just that.

This bill does not increase transparency in the state of New Mexico.

And in some key areas, it actually reduces transparency.

For example, it appears to take enforcement of the state’s Campaign Reporting Act away from the Secretary of State’s Office — where complaints are public when filed.

Instead this bill vests a largely secret board with the power to investigate and render decisions on those complaints.

We’re also concerned that the legislation gives this new board, if created, a charge to enforce the civil penalties in the state’s public records law.

Today, the state’s Attorney General is charged with enforcing those provisions. When those complaints are filed with the AG, they are public record.

It’s unclear exactly what the bill’s authors intend in terms of enforcement of our state’s sunshine laws.

But the Rio Grande Chapter does not like the vague hints dropped in this legislation about removing that authority from an entity that has law enforcement powers and legally-mandated transparency.

Legislators are accountable to those who elected them — and even those who didn’t.

It is our job as journalists to ensure that this accountability comes from the outside, to ensure a non-conflicted set of eyes examines and presents to the public issues related to ethics in government.

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By hiding the existence and results of ethics complaints — ethics complaints! — legislators are asking voters and citizens to trust public officials to judge themselves.

Again, reading this bill, it remains unclear exactly what its authors intend in terms of enforcement of our state’s sunshine laws.

And while the Rio Grande Chapter would like to see the Office of the Attorney General take more aggressive action toward agencies that violate IPRA and OMA, we do not support the provision of this bill which would take civil enforcement of those important laws away from the Attorney General.

We are concerned that the bill’s authors appear to suggest that complaints to the N.M. Secretary of State would come to the board instead.

We do not support efforts to take governance of the Campaign Reporting Act from the Secretary of State’s Office.

We are sensitive to the problems this proposed legislation claims to cure: Political campaigning has, indeed, become nasty business both in New Mexico and around the nation.

Legislators are rightly concerned about what can turn into campaign fodder.

Past experience — as with your decision in 2009 to archive webcasting and committee hearings — tells us that your concerns will not materialize.

Beyond that, however, it was neither journalists nor the public we stand in for who chose to turn the occasion of running for elected office into what amounts to a mud wrestling competition.

Neither journalists nor the public should be the ones to suffer the consequences of dirty politics by surrendering our right to know how you are operating.

In short, ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature, you chose to become public figures. No one forced you to run for office.

To quote Hunter S. Thompson, an esteemed member of our profession, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

Transparency can no longer be a word people mention during their campaign speeches — and then manipulate or misuse once, as lawmakers, they are in positions of power to affect true change in New Mexico.

In the future when crafting bills like this one, or any involving transparency — which the public obviously deserves from its elected leaders — we invite legislators to reach out to the Rio Grande Chapter. Our board of directors, and our members, would be happy to meet with you.

Thank you.

Laura Paskus is president of the Board of Directors of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande Chapter, and this statement represents the views of the board. NMPolitics.net editor and publisher Heath Haussamen is a member of that board. SPJ is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.

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