Thursday, February 24, 2011

For Pete's Sake: Transparency requires courage

by Peter St. Cyr

As the debate in Santa Fe, and across the state, heats up over revoking driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, Governor Susana Martinez, who made the issue a first-year priority for her administration, is taking her appeal directly to the public with one-minute radio ads paid for with money left over from her 2010 campaign.

Using the bully pulpit

It's really not unusual for executives, like presidents, governors, and even mayors to use their bully pulpits to rally the public in support of their proposals. In fact, presidents often take to the national air waves and urge voters to call their senators and representatives -- especially before close votes. They even jump on Air Force One and jet to cities and appeal directly to their constituents. You and I have seen them employ this strategy after almost every State of the Union speech.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the phrase, understood the Oval Office is a terrific platform to advocate an agenda. Every president since has come into our living rooms and spoken to us directly.

Now, Gov. Martinez is using the airwaves, her website, and news conferences to move her public policy proposals. But, she's getting mixed reactions to those tactics.

On Saturday, shortly after the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee tabled three measures dealing with immigrant licenses, the governor's staff sent out a news release which referenced a 2010 public opinion poll. It showed 72 percent of the state's voters are opposed to licenses for non-citizens.

Martinez also had staffers attend the HCPAC hearing and video tape the proceedings. Now, she’s posted those recording on her website. Surely, if the hearings were webcast, and archived, in the first place this would not have been necessary.

Going further, Martinez then launched the radio ad campaign and paid for it with leftover campaign money. While some bloggers and political analysts have criticized her for spending donated money on the ads the law clearly states it can be used for re-election activities. And frankly, getting her agenda passed, with the help of voters calling their lawmakers, seems like a good re-election strategy to us.

Appealing directly to the public

Clearly, elected officials use the media to deliver highly targeted messages to reporters (like me) who show up for their news conferences. They know it's a direct route to the public and the best way to urge support of their proposals.

Just today we received notice that Martinez would be holding a lunch hour news conference to ask the public to support her legislation, which will implement stricter penalties on public officials who are convicted of corruption. She's even invited a group of legislators backing her anti-corruption initiative.

We have to allow executives to push their agenda and appeal to the public directly.

We’re certain that Martinez has consulted attorneys and feels comfortable using money from her 2010 campaign to fund the radio ad broadcasts, and even more comfortable posting videos of legislative hearings on her website.

But, it appears committee chairs and legislators are worried that these videos will be used "against" them in future elections.

On Wednesday, the NM Senate voted 35-3 in favor of new rules (SR4) that require members of the public -- and media -- to request permission from each committee chair and ranking minority member before they photograph, videotape or otherwise record hearings. Certainly, judges have had that option for years, but it appears to us that C-SPAN has been broadcasting federal committee meetings and floor sessions for years.

But lawmakers worry those video tapes will be edited and that they will be taken out of context. The simple solution would be to start webcasting everything beginning now.

Keep in mind, these are public officials, conducting public meetings, in a public building, and as a fan of open government, it's way past time to utilize the technology that’s available. Everyone should have direct and remote access to government.

Spinning the message

After listening to the radio ads above we checked with local law enforcement officers and a few prosecutors. They said Martinez' ads are somewhat misleading.

Prosecutors said they were never able to confirm that the 2009 Denny's robbery-homicide suspects were actual members of the violent Mara Salvatrucha Gang (MS13), which was originally reported after one of the suspects was shown with the number 13 shaved into his haircut. But police quickly backed off of the gang connection after learning the men bragged about being members of the deadly gang simply to intimidate residents in their neighborhood.

Still, Martinez' award-winning ad man and 'top advisor' Jay McCleskey isn't completely wrong. He never directly mentions MS13 in his ad -- instead he writes "a gang from El Salvador", which could technically be true.

The group (being three or more people) was clearly a criminal organization, organized and operating for criminal purposes. By most common definitions, that is a gang. Since the state does not define a gang, that definition is usually sufficient for law enforcement to classify a group as a gang. At the end of the day, all three suspect's were in the country illegally and had state driver's licenses.

For Pete’s Sake

Legislators should be have strong principles before they head to Santa Fe. Once there, they need to listen to both sides of an issue, ask questions, and then courageously stand by their votes.
If they lose re-election based on their voting records so be it. At least we will remember them for the principled leadership.

Of course, government transparency is a two-way street. And one question remains unanswered.
Will the governor, who already has a much better track record complying with Inspection of Public Records' requests, allows legislators, or the public, to record her own cabinet meetings and executive briefings?

It's time for the sun to shine on government across New Mexico.

Now, I'll get off my own blog "bully" pulpit, open my notebook and record the stories that interest you. Let's hope we'll have unlimited access to government of the people.

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