Editorial: Ruling victory for advocates of open records

N ew Mexicans have friends in the state's judicial system who understand a

fundamental truth about how best to serve the public trust.

Those friends sit on the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which has upheld a lower-court ruling that lays out a broad — and welcome — definition of which documents the public is entitled to see. The appeals court on Dec. 11 smacked down the notion, argued by the state Department of Health, that draft documents can be kept from public view.

The court affirmed a more open-minded view by ruling that keeping those public documents secret does not follow New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government — the state's pre-eminent government watchdog group — hailed the decision as a "complete victory" for the organization's position that the preliminary documents, not just the final ones, must remain open to public inspection. So FOG has good reason to cheer the ruling.

The case dates back to August 2007, when Laurel Edenburn sought documents prepared by health department officials regarding its Title V Abstinence Education Block Grant program.

The Department of Health sought to withhold the information, claiming a right-to-secrecy privilege. FOG argued that "privilege" does not exist. The Department of Health's stubborn refusal to release the information led the parties into the courtroom.

The case has endured an arduous court journey, from a Santa Fe County trial court to the state Supreme Court and to the Court of Appeals. Back and forth it has gone, but the result — the appeals court ruling — brings this matter to a proper conclusion.

FOG had filed a brief arguing on Edenburn's behalf that the documents belong to the public and should be made available for public inspection.

Indeed, the Inspection of Public Records Act specifically defines public documents as "all documents, papers, letters, books, maps, tapes, photographs, recordings and other materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that are used, created, received, maintained or held by or on behalf of any public body and relate to public business, whether or not the records are required by law to be created or maintained."

That about covers it.

This case signals an important victory for accountability, openness and transparency. The public's business at all levels should be conducted under bright lights that allow everyone — and that must include New Mexicans whose tax money finances these activities — the opportunity to evaluate what occurs on their behalf.

With friends like those who are guarding the public's interests, New Mexicans have been well-served.

Unsigned editorials are the opinion of the Clovis Media Inc. editorial board, which includes Publisher Ray Sullivan and Editor David Stevens.

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