Sarah Welsh, executive director for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says the public’s right to know isn’t partisan:
Well, we’ve come full circle. Five years ago, Bill Richardson’s administration was asked for state e-mails about an audit of the driver’s license program. It refused, claiming executive privilege, and the Republican Party of New Mexico filed suit.
This year, Secretary of State Dianna Duran was asked for state e-mails about a similar audit — a cross-check between drivers’ licenses and voter rolls. Duran’s office refused, citing executive privilege, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has now filed suit.
It’s a stunning parallel, and the bipartisan principles underpinning open government are rarely on such obvious display. Open government is not a tool of the left or the right, of Democrats or Republicans. It’s simply a tool to hold powerful people accountable.
It goes back to the old adage that information is power. Authorities always seek to control the message and the debate, and freedom-of-information laws guarantee that citizens can peer behind the veil and see what’s really going on. As New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels wrote in a recent opinion, “In order for government to truly be of the people and by the people, and not just for the people, our citizens must be able to know what their own public servants are doing in their name.”
Both the Republican Party of New Mexico and the ACLU-New Mexico sued the government under the same state law: the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). That law states its purpose plainly: “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees.”
In practice, IPRA forces government agencies to release documents that they would rather hold onto. It’s that simple. We don’t need a law to force the release of records that make the current administration look good, or make its political foes look bad. Officials are always happy to release those documents. And without the rights guaranteed by IPRA, that’s all the public would get — a constant stream of ‘aren’t we great’ news.