Freedom of information should be celebrated

By Sarah Welsh: Guest columnist

Sometimes you just need a little perspective. Last month, while politicos and activists of every stripe were hunkered down in the Roundhouse, I slipped away to meet with two small delegations of African officials.

They had come to America to learn about public transparency and anti-corruption efforts in an experienced democracy.

My head was swimming with legislative minutiae — arguments about the confidentiality of a proposed state ethics commission, and why an online Sunshine Portal should include workers’ names. But the African leaders weren’t interested in that.

They were looking at the big picture.

They wanted to know how New Mexico was able to pass its freedom-of-information laws, and how we enforce them. They wanted to know whether our government retaliates against non-profit watchdogs by withholding their operating permits. They wanted to know what we do if the executive branch openly flouts a high-court order to divulge information.

These questions forced me to take a big step back. And seen from that perspective, we’ve come a long way toward bringing sunshine to government. Every state has laws guaranteeing access to public information. The American people believe strongly in our right to oversee our government, and we are shocked and dismayed when vital information is withheld.

Although the government may try to regulate the activities of citizen watchdogs, we have an extremely robust, independent non-profit sector that participates in policy discussions largely without fear of overt retaliation or censorship.

And though the executive branch may drag its feet and hold out as long as possible, a final court order has always been obeyed in the end.

So I’m going to celebrate this week — National Sunshine Week — by giving thanks for America’s many sunshine guarantees.

In New Mexico, thanks to a legion of dedicated activists, we now have some of the toughest freedom-of-information laws in the nation. We’re beginning to speak up about the enormous moral, civic and economic price of government secrecy and its bedfellow, corruption. Even better, we’re doing something about it.

“Transparency” is the new buzzword across public agencies and in non-profit and business sectors. Political candidates jockey to be the most open, pro-sunshine contender. And in the Roundhouse and in city and county chambers throughout New Mexico, policymakers are embracing modern mechanisms for getting information to the people.

After the celebrating is done, it’s back to work. We still have to fight, day in and day out, to enforce our state Inspection of Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act. It still takes months, and sometimes years, to obtain important government documents or to overturn illegal closed-door actions. It also takes money, time and a big chunk of sanity.

But it’s a worthy fight, and it’s a fight we will win. In the end, we the people are sovereign and we will assert our right to know.

Please get out and assert that right today. And have a happy Sunshine Week.