Media must work as government watchdog

By Robert Trapp: Columnist

Community advocates, activists, volunteers and journalists with true grit will celebrate National Sunshine Week today through Saturday. The week is set aside annually to celebrate our freedom to access information under the U.S. Constitution and enlighten the public of its rights to access the records it owns and public bodies it elects.

Sadly, many people don’t join us in our celebration. Worse yet, these same people are among those who would like to increase secrecy and deny access under the pretense of national security, health and safety and privacy. Most of these folks are good people with good intentions. However, they’re misled or misinformed.

A good case in point is the passage of the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act of 1996. This federal law was enacted to allow insurance companies to share an individual’s health records. When someone leaves a job and obtains new insurance at the new job, the old and new insurance companies need to communicate. Before the Act, they could not.

However, bureaucrats trying to hide information about patient status, discharges, drug overdoses, emergency room admissions and many other statistics and records, use the Act as a sort of catch-all for disallowing access.

The Act closes no records nor makes anything private that wasn’t already held private, such as a patient’s records. It simply allows the transfer of patients’ records between insurance companies.

Currently moving through New Mexico’s two legislative bodies are several bills that would make private information that is currently public. Again these bills were introduced with good intentions, but bad information and a lack of imagination created legislation that would close whole chunks of information to protect a very small group of people.

Two bills were introduced to make addresses private in regard to public utility lists.

One bill referred to private utility companies, such as PNM, which is publicly held.

The other referred to public utilities like a city water department, which is a public entity and clearly under the purview of the Inspection of Public Records Act.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the New Mexico Press Association are working with the sponsors to address the specific issues and eliminate the call for creating another exception to the Act.

These are random incidences where information taken for granted as public, would be closed to the public. And once that door swings closed, it’s usually bolted down tight. As maddening and difficult as it is, it’s much easier to keep something open and public than it is to open something already closed. Such is the fight to open conference committees at the state Legislature.

To that end we all need to be aware of small things that happen around us in our municipalities, counties and in state government that close meetings and stymie record access to the public.

The founding fathers constructed our government so that media is the watchdog and government should be scrutinized. That job has always fallen to the printed side of media and our fellow advocates and community activists. Electronic media isn’t capable and doesn’t seem interested in protecting our right to access. If the press doesn’t do its job, public officials won’t do theirs. It’s that simple and it’s that great a responsibility. We must take it seriously.