ByDaniel J. Chacón and Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican |
To hear House Speaker Brian Egolf tell it, public participation in this year’s largely virtual legislative session has been robust even if the doors of the state Capitol have been closed to everyday New Mexicans. In the second and third weeks of the 60-day session, more than 6,100 residents from 32 of the state’s 33 counties have voiced their opinions during committee hearings in the House of Representatives — up from the 2,400 who tuned in the first week. Egolf’s office touted the numbers Tuesday in a news release, declaring virtual participation “continues at a record-setting pace” in the House. But how many New Mexicans have been shut out? “It’s hard to quantify,” Egolf said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a change to the state’s Public Employee Bargaining Act (PEBA) into law Thursday, despite government transparency advocates urging her not to.
Lujan Grisham said in a statement that the law will ensure consistency and clarity for local labor boards around the state.
“Our public employees – including teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters and police officers – deserve uniform rules and a uniform process to negotiate fair wages and safe working conditions,” Lujan Grisham said.
Last week, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government asked the governor not to sign the bill in the name of transparency. The group argued that a possible unintended consequence of HB 364 is that information about public employees like hire dates would be kept a secret. The sticking point for the group, according to a letter they sent Lujan Grisham, is a provision that requires employers to pass on information about new employees within 10 days, but bars passing that information on to “a third party.” But, a lawyer for a New Mexico public sector labor union told the Albuquerque Journal that the language specifically supports the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) instead of eroding it as NM FOG claims.
In the same press release from Lujan Grisham’s office on Thursday, spokesman Tripp Stelnicki reiterated that the governor’s office does not see the bill as problematic for transparency.
“Concerns about a specific provision involving the transmission of employee information between public agency and union are well-intentioned and valuable, as this administration aims to honor and restore transparency in government after eight years of the opposite,” Stelnicki said in the statement. “But what was publicly accessible is very much still publicly accessible.”
In a statement issued after Lujan Grisham signed HB 364, NM FOG said the issue will likely not get cleared up until a challenge is filed in court.
“While the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) appreciates Governor Michelle
Lujan Grisham’s public expressions of support for transparency in government, only time will
tell whether courts will construe the problematic provisions of House Bill 364 in the way the governor would like them construed or in the way they’re actually written,” the statement read.
Questions about what information on public employees should be readily accessible led to a lawsuit in 2012 between the same labor union that pushed for HB 364 and then-Gov. Susana Martinez. The Martinez administration argued that information like hire dates, salaries and names of public employees should be published on the state’s Sunshine Portal.
A state senator has proposed to keep much of the New Mexico ethics commission’s work secret and potentially impose thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time on anyone who breaks its confidentiality rules. Seventy-five percent of voters in last year’s election approved the creation of a state ethics commission, and legislators are now debating exactly how it should work, including how much the public should know about the cases it handles. Legislation filed this week by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would set up the commission to ensure that ethics complaints remain secret unless it decides there has been a violation of law or the accused signs waives confidentiality. Under her Senate Bill 619, the form for filing an ethics complaint would include a confidentiality agreement. And anyone who discloses confidential complaints or investigations could face fines as high as $10,000 and up to a year in jail.
The University of New Mexico is reevaluating its policy of charging for electronic copies of public records on a per-page basis in response to a reprimand from the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office. In an email to NM Political Report, the school’s Office of University Counsel said the UNM public records custodian is “evaluating the fee structure” for fulfilling requests of electronic records. Associate University Counsel Patrick Hart also wrote that the public records department will suspend the policy and practice of charging $0.38 a page for electronic records through the end of September. The change comes after the state Attorney General’s office issued a determination letter in response to a complaint filed by NM Political Report. NM Political Report filed the complaint after the UNM’s Custodian of Public Records billed $0.38 a page for an electronic file that contained more than 1,600 pages.
The University of New Mexico violated state law when it didn’t properly fulfill records requests from NM Political Report, according to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office. A determination letter from Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp, in response to a complaint filed by NM Political Report, cited two violations of the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). In one instance, the university failed to provide records in the statutorily required amount of time. In another instance, the AG’s office determined that UNM violated state law by charging $0.38 per page to transfer more than 1,600 pages in a single electronic file. “Based on our review of the evidence and applicable laws, we conclude that the University’s proposed fees violated IPRA,” Kreienkamp wrote.
After almost two years of legal battles, the State of New Mexico agreed to settle a lawsuit filed against its Corrections Department. In 2015, six female employees at the state prison in Los Lunas sued the department, saying some of their male supervisors assaulted and sexually harassed them. The six women collectively received $2.5 million according to the settlement agreement signed in January. Their attorney, Laura Schauer Ives, said the women sued the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility to shed light on what they called a culture of demeaning female corrections officers. The 140-page lawsuit alleged a history of aggressively sexual comments and crass words directed at female officers.
A legislative committee gave its backing Wednesday to a bill that would allow Spaceport America to exempt many of its business dealings from New Mexico’s open records law as the state’s major open government advocacy group dropped its opposition to the measure. The publicly owned facility, which cost more than $200 million to construct, has been pushing for the legislation, arguing the bill would allow it to attract more aerospace companies to New Mexico from a highly competitive and secretive industry. And while critics had argued the measure would diminish the public’s oversight of the facility, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said it would not oppose a revised version of the bill put forward by a top Republican lawmaker Wednesday evening. “It’s a very difficult balance,” Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday evening, summing up how lawmakers have been torn this session between arguments for transparency and arguments that the facility already has cost the state too much money to pass up any opportunity to attract business. As a public agency, Spaceport America’s own finances will still be audited.
A state Senate committee voted Friday for a bill allowing New Mexico’s taxpayer-funded Spaceport to shield from public view the identity of its customers and other records. The Judiciary Committee voted 7-0 to advance the measure that Spaceport America says is crucial for it to attract private companies. Dan Hicks, executive director of the Spaceport, said companies interested in locating at the $209 million enterprise in Sierra County want to keep private the intellectual property they would bring with them. Republican Sen. Bill Burt of Alamogordo, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure is important to New Mexico taxpayers. Landing companies that can help make the Spaceport successful is crucial if the public is to recoup its investment in the project, Burt said.
A trial involving the University of New Mexico and its medical facility began Monday with jury selection. But after a decision from a district judge and a high ranking court official, no one from the public, including media, was allowed to witness the process of how or why each side selected or rejected jurors. The case goes back to 2011 when Dr. Cynthia Herald filed a lawsuit against UNM Hospital and some of its administrators for firing Herald after she said a male doctor raped her. Herald and the male doctor were both residents at UNM at the time, but Herald was dismissed from the program shortly after she reported the rape to her superiors. UNMH has maintained from the beginning they kicked Herald out of the residency program for subsequent drug use while on the job as an anesthesiologist.
Sandoval County’s attempts to plan for oil and gas development continue to draw heated criticism. At their October 19 meeting, county commissioners pulled a proposed ordinance from the agenda, but the commission fielded public comments for nearly an hour, mostly from people who oppose the proposed oil and gas ordinance. Sandoval County covers 3,700 square miles, stretching from Bernalillo to Counselor and Placitas to Torreon. Widespread drilling already occurs in the northern part of the county, which overlaps with the energy-rich San Juan Basin. Those wells are concentrated along Highway 550 north of Cuba and near the Navajo Nation.