At a time when many members of the public and media may believe governmental transparency would not even rate a D-plus for effort, all five candidates vying to be New Mexico's next governor insist they will build and maintain an open government, one eager to offer public information that's easy to access.
Almost every morsel of public data will be digitized, making it easy to respond to open records requests, they said during a one-hour candidates' forum in Albuquerque on Sunday. And the possible creation of a state ethics commission -- an action that will go to voters to decide in November's general election -- will help ensure that government entities are being open and honest.
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government played host to the event, which was streamed live on the organization's Facebook page, focusing the questions on where the candidates stand on government transparency issues. With the exception of a speed round of questioning in which the candidates had to answer yes or no, each candidate had a minute to answer the questions and no time to respond to others' comments.
The forum comes some 10 months after a Pew Research Center poll found only 18 percent of Americans have faith in their governmental leaders.
For the most part, the candidates in Sunday's forum agreed on almost every point: Too often, governments act in secret behind closed doors and make it difficult for the public and media to access public information, including police department lapel video camera footage.
But here and there disagreements popped up. For example, asked whether government agencies should disclose the names and backgrounds of candidates applying for any governmental position, Democratic contenders Jeff Apodaca, an Albuquerque businessman, and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said while they would support such disclosures, there may be room for compromise so that there are not "unintended consequences," as Lujan Grisham put it.
The problem, they and other candidates said, is that revealing such information could jeopardize the current job standing of some of the job applicants and thus cut down on the number of "best" candidates for those jobs.
But challenger Peter DeBenedittis said there can be no room for secrecy in the process. "The best people who have secrets to hide won't get hired," he said.
Asked in a speed round whether they support releasing court records involving juveniles involved in serious crimes, both U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of Hobbs -- the only Republican in the race -- and Lujan Grisham qualified their answers with "in certain circumstances." But he said he does not agree with releasing those details while Lujan Grisham and the other candidates said they would support such a measure.
All five candidates supported making police lapel video footage available to the public. Pearce said that action could actually help win back public trust in police officers, who sometimes face "unfounded" charges when involved with violent situations.
"I think lapel cameras should support their positions that they have or have not done things properly," he said.
None of the candidates felt government agencies should ask the public or the media to pay for administrative fees incurred in public records requests.
On the potential for the creation of a state ethics commission, Apodaca said he would ensure it is run independently and "make sure we are auditing the books and seeing how the dollars are spent." State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Democrat from Las Cruces, said the first thing a new governor should do with that commission is figure out "who is on it and who appoints those people." He added the commission must include a due-process component including the right to appeal decisions the commission makes.
Peter St. Cyr, who serves as executive director for the Foundation for Open Government, said his group's goal was to "get the candidates on the record so we can have the most transparent governor of all time." Of the five challengers, he said, "it looks like they understand the public's right to know."
He said he hopes the forum made the candidates "better educated" on the topic of holding government officials accountable for waste, fraud and abuse and spending public money.
Visit www.nmfog.org or the Foundation for Open Government's Facebook page to watch the video of the forum.
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or email@example.com