Sunshine Week this year occurs amid the harsh reality of what can happen when a government operates behind a curtain of secrecy, as is what’s happening half a world away in Russia. Its people are not only prevented from seeing the truth of the horrors their country is wreaking on their neighbors, but they are being fed lies and propaganda created by their ruler.
As New Mexicans, we are blessed to live in a country and a state with strong transparency laws — laws that protect our right to know. Laws that need constant vigilance and protection.
That comes in the form of private citizens speaking out, local newspapers serving as watchdogs and ultimately legal action seeking to force government entities to stop hiding behind secrecy and follow the law.
This year’s Sunshine Week coincides with that last scenario, one that is all too familiar in New Mexico.
A lawsuit was filed just this week against the city of Rio Rancho regarding its refusal to release records.
The Inspection of Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act safeguard public access to government action, data and records. IPRA declares it “to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government.”
Despite the state having a strong presumptive policy for open government on the books, the public’s right to know is too often undermined by government entities ignoring or misinterpreting the law, as outlined in the lawsuit filed Monday.
Rio Rancho has refused multiple requests from the news media, including the Journal, for law enforcement records in the tragic gunshot death of a 2-year-old son of a Santa Fe police officer last December.
The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government have filed a lawsuit seeking a formal court ruling on whether the city of Rio Rancho can legally withhold certain law enforcement records, such as public police reports and 911 calls, related to the toddler’s death. Such law enforcement records traditionally and routinely have been made available for public inspection, with certain redactions, under IPRA.
Last week, Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office concluded that Rio Rancho violated IPRA by denying a request from KOAT-TV for law enforcement records about the Dec. 8 fatal shooting inside a Rio Rancho residence.
He said he was “disappointed that they (Rio Rancho officials) pretend to take the position of protecting children and yet I firmly believe that transparency laws also protect children especially in the light of these tragic circumstances. The community wants and deserves answers in terms of what tragically happened to the young child.”
Balderas said enough time has elapsed that the “general public should at least be aware of the Rio Rancho Police Department’s conclusions and/or whether or not there are prosecutorial experts needed.”
No records have been provided by the Rio Rancho Police Department that might explain how Lincoln Harmon was shot and by whom. No one has been criminally charged in the case. The lack of transparency leaves the public in the dark about whether the victim is receiving adequate due process.
Rio Rancho officials contend the records are confidential under the New Mexico Children’s Code, which covers civil abuse and neglect proceedings, and juvenile delinquency matters.
But the code has never covered police records, and the lawsuit contends Rio Rancho’s interpretation threatens the release of future public records.
“The asserted justification for wholesale denial of the records request at issue here was plainly erroneous as a matter of law,” states the lawsuit, which was assigned to state District Judge James Noel of Sandoval County. “Should it go uncorrected by a court in this widely publicized case, it threatens to curtain from public view vast swaths of previously public information at the intersection of public safety and child welfare.”
The lawsuit goes on to suggest the city of Rio Rancho’s actions reflect preferential treatment for a police officer; that the only thing that differentiates this from other cases where Rio Rancho releases similar records is “that a police officer is one of the parties under suspicion.”
Sunshine Week, which began Sunday, was launched in 2005 and is a national initiative in which watchdog news organizations such as the and pro-transparency groups like the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government highlight the importance of open government and the dangers of secrecy .
We want every New Mexican to remember that open, accountable government is the cornerstone of our democracy.
What is occurring in Russia is a strong reminder of what we have to lose.
This editorial first appeared in the . It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.