Transparency in New Mexico: The 2010 Legislature

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This year brings a landmark for the Sunlight Foundation. We’ve been hinting for some time that we’re going to make a serious play in state government, and New Mexico is one of the first where we’ll focus those efforts. As my colleague Noah wrote earlier this month, the state’s House of Representatives has voted to expand the presence of webcams in its proceedings. It was an early sign during the 2010 legislative session that New Mexico’s lawmakers are beginning to take open government seriously. It was a also welcome sign, but when the session ended last week it was clear that open-government advocates will remain busy in the 2011 session.

The state has been plagued by corruption and ethics investigations in recent years, and while the Sunlight Foundation doesn’t have a dog in that particular fight we do recognize (and support) the role transparency can play in helping citizens hold their elected officials accountable. From Sunlight’s perspective, there are a number of interesting questions raised by New Mexico’s legislature and the “state of transparency” there—some unique to the Land of Enchantment and some that will be applicable in other locales as well. For starters, the state legislature is part time and they just completed a 30-day session (every other year it’s 60 days). That’s true for many states, but in New Mexico legislators aren’t paid for their time in Santa Fe. It also means lawmakers have precious little time to consider legislation. As you’re aware, the Sunlight Foundation has long called on Congress to post legislation online for 72 hours prior to a vote. How would such a rule be feasible in a short legislative session like the one underway in New Mexico? Continue reading…

WNMU BoR Special Meeting Today

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So, it appears as though the Board of Regents are holding a special meeting today in Rio Rancho to again discuss President John Counts contract. According to this Daily Press article, several of the Regents realized their hasty decision extending the president’s contract might lead to unintended consequences: namely, Counts could receive a retention bonus twice!

This is an example of why the Regents should take the time to notify the community of their intentions, initiate a true dialog with residents in the area (and faculty and staff) and provide clear agendas with specific objectives. Something like this would have been avoided if others knowledgeable about contract issues had seen the proposal beforehand.

Sadly, the meeting will not be held in the Silver City-Grant County area – the Regents are meeting in Rio Rancho. IF you can manage to swing by the WNMU Administration building, and IF you can do that at the exact time of the meeting, and IF there’s enough room for you to sit in the ridiculously small Serna Conference Room, you can attend the meeting by phone. If not, you’ll have to hope a local reporter can make it to the meeting and report on it for you – they didn’t bother to implement any of my earlier suggestions.

Oh, and it looks like Regent President Tony Trujillo is still upset about the situation, and won’t attend the meeting. He questioned whether the original vote was legal (!) and said he thought the other regents may have discussed the vote before the Dec. 12 meeting.

I’ll have more on this when I hear about it.

Can we welcome WNMU to the 21st century?


So, looks like the WNMU regents, absent their board president, decided to extend President John Counts’ contract another year. I remember when they gave him an extension in 04-05 (I was reporting for KNFT), great pains were made to indicate it would be the last time. The regents argued they needed to hike Counts’ pay so they could attract quality candidates to succeed him; they wanted to bring his salary in line with that of other New Mexico university presidents; and they wanted to give him a better retirement package.

Then, in 2006 (IIRC), they upped the salary again, extended the contract further, and even included a retention bonus.

Rinse, repeat, in 2008.

Faculty are likely upset, but that’s not even the most egregious part of the story. ((Honestly, they should be angry – they’re always drawing the short straw on the salary front, but Counts continues to receive raises and contract extensions. But that’s another blog post.))  The real news is that Board of Regents President Tony Trujillo was unaware that the contract extension would be on the agenda until the day of the vote:

“The first time I saw the agenda item under New Business … was this morning at the work session,” Trujillo said on Friday. “The item was not on the agenda we discussed a week ago.”
Trujillo said he had met with Counts a week earlier, on Friday, Dec. 5, to discuss the agenda before it was released, as per the Board of Regents’ handbook.
“I can’t participate in being railroaded into an agenda item I didn’t know about,” Trujillo said. “I’m not going to participate in a public forum where I have issues.”

Now, WNMU is going to say it violated no laws about public meetings and that it posted an amended agenda at the proper times, but you know what? If the board president doesn’t know in advance, how is the public supposed to know?

Time and again, the WNMU Board of Regents has stifled public comment, obfuscated when possible, and violated the public trust. Staff of the school (whom also serve the Board when it is in session) work diligently to ensure that state and federal open meetings and open records acts are followed to the letter of the law, but not the spirit. Holding quarterly meetings in Santa Fe, cramming work sessions into the tight conference room in the administration building, and limiting public input time during meetings are just a few of the measures that, when viewed together, seem to indicate an aversion to public dialogue and openness.

I haven’t really been around for the past two years, but reading stories like the one in today’s Daily Press sure doesn’t lead me to think that the school, its leaders, or staff have taken steps to involve the community or be more transparent. So, here are a few tips (specifically for Regents-related issues):

  1. Agendas should be published early and online, and include meeting materials (reports or presentations).
    • For something like the president’s contract exentsion, this should include information on salary ranges for comparable institutions within in the state and region. Faculty should have been consulted, and the results of any feedback they generate should be provided to Regents and the public. In addition, there should be a detailed plan in place to begin a search for a successor, and that should be an action item as well.
    • Other materials, like reports on asset disposal, tuition increases, etc., should also be prepared in advance and made available to the public in an electronic format.
  2. Then, encourage interested parties to provide advance feedback electronically (via e-mail) or in the form of a written letter. Give this feedback to the Regents during the work session. That way, a dialogue can exist that isn’t limited to 15 minutes at the end of a 2-hour meeting.
  3. WNMU constantly highlights its distance-learning initiatives – why not stream board meetings online so people can watch from across the state? It’s cheap and WNMU already has the tech (or should). That way, even if Regents have to meet in a small room or in Santa Fe (or elsewhere), interested parties and the public can see what’s happening.
  4. Audio recordings of board meetings and work sessions should be posted online in MP3 or similar format, so members of the community can review what happened.

These are all really, really easy to do, and would go a long way toward engaging the comunity in the University’s affairs in a positive and constructive way. But, I have a feeling it will be business as usual – like it’s been since 1993.

Mr. Fancy Pants in the New York Times


No less than four women called me “Mr. Fancy Pants” when I relayed I had been interviewed by the New York Times yesterday. I imagine they must teach this term during girl’s physical education classes in grade school, ((My reasoning here is that P.E. classes were mandatory, and yet were oftentimes the only occasion in which students were separated by gender))  since I don’t remember it on the general curriculum and its use seems confined to the female population.

Anyhoo, in case you were wondering:

These sites were all talking and cross-linking with each other and about two weeks ago they joined up with Congresspedia, a nonpartisan site that was already using the wiki process to build profiles of all members of Congress. Congresspedia, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media and Democracy, had a fairly high profile, as well as paid editors in place who monitor the site and make sure all entries are sourced. On Wednesday, Congresspedia emerged as the host site for S.T.P. and it has quickly become a clearing house for superdelegate information.

“The biggest portion of the new users who have come in the last four or five days are people with local knowledge at the state level or the district level,” said Avelino Maestas, assistant editor for Congresspedia. “We’re getting information that most people at a national level wouldn’t have.”

I think that first paragraph merits the only clarification I saw in the reportage: I don’t think anybody partnered up with Congresspedia until last week.

Superdelegate Transparency Project

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In the past 48 hours, Congresspedia (in conjunction with The Literary Outpost and OpenLeft) launched the Superdelegate Transparency Project. My editor (working from a café in Argentina while on vacation) drafted a pretty great support structure, while we imported a bunch of data volunteers have collected on the Democratic nomination.

The result is 55 pages — divided by state, district or territory — that compiles the popular vote, a pledged delegate count and, most importantly, a system to track the superdelegates. We’re identifying them, determining whether they’ve endorsed a candidate, and trying to track whether their vote is in line with what the constituents in each state want. With Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama racing toward a photo-finish, the superdelegates might decide who gets the nomination.

Chris Bowers wrote a great introduction over at OpenLeft, if you want some of the back story on the process.  Otherwise, if you’re interested in the role these individuals will play in the Democratic nomination, you should head over to the project and read up. If you want to help shine some light on the process, help out. If you need any assistance, just let me know.