Based on little more than a hunch, an Albuquerque state lawmaker has unfortunately once again filed a bill to keep secret the names of those who apply for leadership positions in New Mexico, like police chief or school superintendent.
Under the bill filed by state Sen. Bill Tallman, all “appointive executive positions” would be subject to exemption from the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. In addition to police chiefs, fire chiefs, school superintendents, city managers and other top taxpayer-funded positions, Tallman’s bill would exempt nonelected chief executive officers of state agencies, institutions and political subdivisions of the state.
That would mean communities across the state would be unable to see the full pool of applicants for these important positions, and would therefore be unable to see the diversity of applicants or their level of qualifications. Instead, the change could lead to a return to back-room deals brokered by a handful of political insiders.
This, while the City of Rio Rancho is looking for its next city manager.
Under Tallman’s bill, only three finalists would have to be disclosed. How is the public to know what distinguishes those three finalists from the rest of the field, or the quality of the field?
Tallman, a Democrat, says disclosure of applicants under current law has led to a dearth of qualified candidates. What city or county has suffered from the disclosure of applicants for their top jobs?
As the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government notes, there is no scientific data backing the assertion that an open hiring process discourages qualified candidates. Without empirical proof demonstrating harm to school districts, universities and government agencies, Tallman’s bill is a solution in search of a problem.
Moreover, NMFOG’s Executive Director Melanie Majors notes the salaries of those hired are paid for by taxpayers “and the public has the right to know as much about the candidate pool as possible.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says the governor is committed to “transparency and open government,” though she did not say specifically whether the governor would sign or veto Tallman’s bill if it reaches her desk. Tallman proposed a similar bill in 2019 that passed the Senate by a 27-14 vote but fortunately stalled in the House.
The governor should reiterate her commitment to transparency and announce her opposition to the bill. And lawmakers should not waste time debating a bill based on a hunch.
Tallman, who approaches the bill as a former city manager in Connecticut, says potential applicants for top taxpayer-funded positions don’t want their employers to know they applied for a job elsewhere.
“I believe in transparency, but there’s an exception to everything,” he told the Journal.
Well, tough cookies. Important leadership positions come with important responsibilities.
If an assistant deputy city manager in Connecticut has the courage to apply for a taxpayer-funded leadership position in New Mexico, he or she should have the courage to stand by that application. It goes with the job, and the six-digit salaries taxpayers pay.
Tallman says New Mexico is one of a few states that requires disclosure of all applicants for a range of appointed government positions. That’s a badge of honor, not a demerit.
Other states should follow our lead, not the other way around. Because good government is open government.
(This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the Journal editorial board.)