The Fight For Light

It’s Sunshine Week, and it’s still not clear what that means to Santa Fe leaders

A speck of light appeared last fall as I worked with SFR’s Katherine Lewin on a cover story documenting the city’s latest public-facing efforts to build trust in the police: the oddly named Community Health and Safety Task Force.

Its creation came amid a spike in complaints against Santa Fe Police Department officers for a host of alleged infractions, from sexual assault and excessive force to rude behavior and delayed response times. And more broadly, officials built the task force at the end of a long, hot summer of protest and renewed calls for police accountability nationwide.

Two Santa Fe city councilors and nine other residents would tackle the big issues as part of the task force's work, then make recommendations for change, city leaders promised. It was all on the table: citizen oversight, a deep dive into policy, non-police responses to situations better suited for a softer touch—even increased transparency at the cop shop.

But last week, while editing an online dispatch from Lewin's SFR colleague, Leah Cantor, the wee ray of light I'd seen last year was snuffed out, enveloped in the darkness of a near-unanimous City Council vote that cordoned off the work of the task force from the public it's meant to serve.

Only Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth thought Santa Feans should get to watch the business of a group ostensibly working to improve Santa Fe.

"And just in time for Sunshine Week," I hissed while reading Cantor's story.

The reference is to the seven-day stretch each year when journalists celebrate victories for transparency, grouse about setbacks and launch efforts to intensify the spotlight in shrouded corners.

Sunshine Week exists because, at nearly all levels of government around the US, opacity is the rule, not the exception. Santa Fe and its cloaked police department are, alas, in the mainstream—regardless of which political party is running things.

This national problem is once again hilariously and devastatingly chronicled on the cover of this week's SFR, which features an annual syndicated piece shepherded by one of our infamous alums, Dave Maass, director of investigations for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (My favorites among the 2021 "Foilies" are "The Eric Cartman Respect My Authoritah Award" and "The Thin Crust, Wood-Fired Redactions Award." Please read EFF's amazing piece.)

Had it taken its ill-advised vote but a bit sooner, the Santa Fe City Council could have added a Foilie to its impressive record of anti-transparency measures. This time around, neither I nor SFR is asleep to the rationale for secrecy given by Councilors Renee Villarreal and Chris Rivera, who co-chair the task force. Calling out the police for misconduct and worse is a sensitive, dangerous undertaking. Members' reluctance to do so in front of hot cameras is understandable, as is their desire for a "safe space" to share traumas.

In a brave, lonely stand for sunshine, Romero-Wirth tried to salve those concerns by suggesting that less formal, information-gathering sessions could be conducted in private, while meetings of the task force itself should remain public. After all, although the group is not subject to the state Open Meetings Act, which mandates policymaking meetings be accessible to the public, a 2009 city ordinance says all meetings, including those of boards, commissions and task forces should be open.

The idea: more transparency and, in turn, more trust.

But with the March 11 vote, the council has opened the city to more criticism and less trust from both ends. If the task force's recommendations appear too soft to reformers, they'll wonder how such decisions were made; same for supporters of the status quo if the suggestions push for real change.

There's another irony, as well. Among the task force's self-described duties is to examine SFPD's transparency policies.

They are awful.

For a couple of years, SFR has been embroiled in litigation with the city over a basic question: When SFPD metes out discipline for a policy violation, should the public have the right to know what the punishment was for an employee whose salary we pay?

Like those of his predecessors, Mayor Alan Webber's position is that the fact of officer discipline is a "matter of opinion" and therefore exempt from disclosure under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).

SFR believes that facts are facts, not opinions, and we continue the fight. After a mixed bag of rulings from state District Court Judge Bryan Biedscheid, our dedicated legal team of Daniel Yohalem and Katherine Murray are now preparing to argue in front of the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

Our hope is for some fortification of New Mexicans' right to know about the inner workings of their police departments. After all, Santa Fe isn't the only city that considers facts to be opinions, and we deserve an untangling of the case law.

By the way, if it seems like you've read a rant similar to this one under my byline before, it's because you probably have. And if it seems like SFR is constantly in court, slugging it out with political leaders of both parties over access to government happenings, it's because we kind of are.

A yearslong legal battle against the administration of former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez came to a (partial) close in December 2017, when then state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that Martinez and Co., had not violated the state constitution in freezing our newspaper out of the information flow, but had broken IPRA three times in refusing to give us records. (The state, by the way, kept fighting under Martinez's successor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, to prevent our attorneys from being paid until finally relenting in mid-2019 and ultimately coughing up well-deserved fees and costs.)

I don't especially enjoy being a listed party in a lawsuit. Neither do my colleagues. We just want to inform our readers about the functions of their governments, whether that be by coverage of public meetings, analysis of public records or some other means that ought to be accomplished with the lights on.

In a city with a police transparency problem, we hope leaders will reconsider their decision for darkness with the Community Health and Safety Task Force. We are all part of this community, and our collective health depends on it.

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