There’s light on the horizon

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Exactly two years ago, I was preparing to write a column heralding Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government, freedom of information and the public’s right to know. Before I had a chance to formulate my message, Socorro Electric Cooperative’s board of trustees gave me something to write about. That very week they announced their own set of resolutions to present at the annual meeting that year. Much to my consternation, and that of a whole lot of other people, their resolutions ran in direct opposition to those proposed by the member-owners, including the ones that called for the co-op to operate with greater transparency by following the Open Meetings Act and Inspection of Public Records Act.

What made it more appalling was they included a disclaimer that stated despite their opposition, “transparency and openness of action are major goals of the SEC.”

Well, I knew when I read it that was a boldfaced lie. It was only a few months earlier that a small group of people — member-owners of the cooperative — and the press were kicked out of a board meeting at which the annual audit was to be presented. That’s the audit that addressed how our money was being spent.

On an earlier occasion, I walked into the co-op offices and asked to review the minutes from three board meetings. After a little bit of back and forth between me and the former general manager, I was reluctantly shown the documents. But I wasn’t allowed to make copies at my expense. My suggestion that I could photograph the pages was also denied. I could have been in and out in 10-15 minutes; instead, I spent nearly two hours painstakingly copying the minutes into my notebook and developing writer’s cramp.

As we all know, after members passed all of the member-sponsored resolutions by overwhelming margins at the 2010 annual meeting, the board proved their statement false by deciding to challenge the new bylaws with a lawsuit against all the member-owners.

“Transparency and openness of action are major goals of the SEC.” B.S.

But that was then and this is now. I’m happy to report that today I, as a member of the press, am now receiving a “media packet” at board meetings, which includes minutes from the previous meeting and other information relevant to the meeting — just like we do at any city council, county commission and school board meeting.

I attribute this change in policy to three things: 1) a new general manager who gets it and, in fact, has been darn right accommodating; 2) a judge’s order that requires them to follow OMA and IPRA; and 3) efforts by members to exercise their right to know.

I’m also happy to report that since that judge made his ruling almost a year ago, I’ve been getting information I’ve requested from the co-op. I’ve heard from some other members who have asked for information, with mixed results, but the good news is the co-op is making an effort.

Here’s the thing: change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like turning on a light switch. To be sure, it should have started a year earlier, or really long before that, but I see Socorro Electric shedding some light. They’re educating themselves about OMA and IPRA and have sent people to training. Members may have forced them to, but they’re trying.

Like the dawn of a day, sunshine comes gradually. They may not be there yet, but there’s light on the horizon.

Sunshine Week runs from March 11-17. Celebrate it and exercise your right to know.

For information about what you are entitled to know from your local government and how to obtain it, visit New Mexico Foundation for Open Government’s website at www.nmfog.org.

 


-- Email the author at tslast@dchieftain.com.