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Ethics Commission advocates seek Roswell’s input

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A group that has long pushed for creation of an independent ethics commission in New Mexico last week conducted a series of focus groups on the issue in Roswell.

New Mexico is one of only six states without an ethics commission to field complaints against elected officials and government employees. Common Cause New Mexico has been advocating for creation of such a commission for three decades, more or less, and that goal — one shared by many citizens and public officials — is now within sight: A constitutional amendment to create an ethics commission will go before voters in November.

The Legislature in 2017 approved a framework for the commission, with some details about how it will function to be worked out in 2019, pending voter approval.

Heather Ferguson, legislative director for Common Cause New Mexico, said looking ahead to that process was what brought Common Cause to Roswell last week.

“We’re going to be putting together the enabling legislation, so we’ve already been putting together some of the details… “ she said. “That’s actually why we were out here in Roswell … to do focus groups out here and talk to people that are outside of the Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Las Cruces corridor.

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“It’s really important to our organization, since we have members all over the state — we have many members right here in Roswell — who contact us with questions and concerns all the time. … We wanted to make that there’s representation and input from outside that corridor.”

Ferguson visited the Daily Record office last week to discuss efforts to create an ethics commission — the work of her group, along with the desire of citizens and the will of the Legislature.

“It was not only bipartisan, but bicameral,” she said of lawmakers’ decision to move forward after decades of seeing ethics commission proposals fail to get off the ground. “We had both senators and representatives supporting this.”

As far as what led to the sea change in opinions on such a measure, Ferguson chalks that up to public scandals that have focused the attention of lawmakers and the public on the need for a commission.

“Some of those same old arguments (against) still came up,” she said. “Most of it centered around the make-up of the commission.

“I thing what shifted was, we had several high-profile cases that have really shown folks that we need to have a better system to address ethical violations of any elected official.”

A New Mexico ethics commission, Ferguson said, would ideally have oversight of not only of elected officials, but of the campaign reporting act, as well as the work of contractors, lobbyists — many of different pieces that comprise the day-to-day business of government.

“It could also serve as an advisory board,” she added. In such a capacity, the commission could field queries from public officials wondering whether certain plans — for instance, on how to spend campaign funds — are acceptable under state law, or might get them in hot water.

Plans are for a seven-member commission, with four members appointed by individual legislative leaders; one appointed by the governor; and the last two agreed-upon appointees by House and Senate leaders.

“Everybody has to agree on the last two,” she said. “We’re hoping that will be that moderate middle ground.” The group would have subpoena power, she said.

In addition to increased accountability, it’s also thought an ethics commission could ultimately save New Mexicans money. Investigations into alleged malfeasance, especially when they’re widespread, are expensive.

In any event, creation of a group meant to shine additional light on the activities of government might seem like an easy call for most New Mexicans to make, and Ferguson said the polling done by Common Cause indicates widespread public support.

“Every time that we’ve polled this we’ve had over 90 percent of the public that has said, ‘Yes, we absolutely want an ethics commission,’” Ferguson said. “But we also recognize and understand how skeptical the public is of whether or not this can be effective.”

Following approval by voters, enabling legislation for creation of an ethics commission would be worked on in the next session of the Legislature, and hopefully, the pieces could be put together in time for the commission to begin work by July 2019.

Common Cause is a non-partisan national organization with chapters in 36 states. The group, which advocates for ethics and accountability measures, began in the late 1970s in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Creation of an ethics commission would see one of the New Mexico chapter’s longest-running efforts finally cross the finish line.

New Mexico, Ferguson said, has “an undeserved scandalous reputation. It only take a few of those bad apples.

“But the majority of the legislators that we work with are there because they want to serve the public.”

Roswell Daily Record editor John Dilmore can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 303, or editor@rdrnews.com.