Sunshine lost a good friend last week. Bob Johnson, who spent the last two decades fighting for the public’s right to know what its government is doing, died in Albuquerque on Saturday after suffering a stroke. He was 84.
Johnson helped start the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government in 1989. Media outlets across the state — including the Clovis News Journal, Portales News-Tribune and Quay County Sun — sought his advice first when confronted with government secrecy.
FOG’s executive director also helped the general public, students and even public officials understand the state’s laws governing public records and meetings.
In 2004, Clovis’ school board member Mark Lansford sought Johnson’s help in changing long-standing board policies that limited public input. Soon, the board began allowing more public comment and eliminated 6:30 a.m. meetings.
Johnson also played a major advisory role in a 1994 Portales lawsuit in which the media sought access to police records after an officer was involved in an off-duty fight. When the legal maneuvering ended, three Portales city employees lost their jobs and the records were released.
Johnson and the New Mexico Attorney General’s office have regularly traveled the state, conducting seminars on open government.
About 40 people attended one of those seminars this summer in Tucumcari.
Johnson often referred to his work as “letting the sunshine in.”
“He was tenacious, well intentioned and one of a kind,” Albuquerque attorney Marty Esquivel told The Associated Press. “Bob made sure democracy functioned the way our forefathers wanted it to function, which was out in the open and not behind closed doors.”
Hobbs News-Sun Publisher Kathi Bearden told AP: “It didn’t matter how big or small, he was rabid about open government. He truly believed in open government and didn’t mind entering the fray for any citizen.”
Johnson spent the first 42 years of his career as a journalist with AP and is best known for writing AP’s first bulletin on the assassination of President Kennedy.
His work in open government began after his “retirement” in 1988.
In a guest column he wrote for Freedom New Mexico earlier this year, Johnson described open government as “letting light shine through official fog so the public, meaning everybody, can see what elected servants are doing …”
He wanted to make sure government’s rules were made to benefit the public, not “just to protect (government) power,” he wrote.
New Mexico has never had a more dedicated public servant. We miss him already.