In 2016, New Mexico First conducted a series of focus groups about the pros and cons of establishing a state ethics commission. Meetings were held with current and former public officials, as well as members of the media. While our research revealed a wide range of perspectives on the structure and timing of an ethics commission, most participants believed that New Mexico needs one. They offered a variety of reasons including public trust, fragmented existing systems, preventing honest mistakes, limitations of existing legal structures, and policymakers being asked to police themselves.
In 2018, New Mexico voters passed a constitutional ballot initiative that called for establishing a state ethics commission. Legislators, voters’ rights advocates, good government organizations, business and community leaders have since come together to discuss and identify some of the principles and key elements that would build a solid foundation for an effective ethics commission.
Principles of an Effective Ethics Commission
Below are key principles for an effective state ethics commission that may serve as a guide when determining specific elements of legislative and regulatory proposals. These principles are based on research of best practices throughout the state and country, input from government officials current and former, business and community leaders, media and the public.
Budget and Staffing
- Budget for the commission is sufficient enough to support professional staff that can receive, and timely initiate, investigate and adjudicate complaints and provide timely advisory guidance.
- Executive director may be an attorney and is knowledgeable about state laws related to accountability.
- Commission may initiate, receive, investigate and adjudicate complaints and may issue subpoenas. Includes state legislative and administrative officials and employees, government contractors, prospective government contractors and lobbyists.
- Commission has primary jurisdiction in the context of screening and referring complaints to the appropriate agency.
- Commission has discretion to provide whistleblower protections to complainants.
- Commission hearings and meetings are open to the public and comply with the Open Meetings Act.
Decision Making and Process
- Commission decisions require a quorum of at least four members, with at least two political parties needed to produce the quorum, to avoid partisan decision making by the commission.
- Commissioner may be recused or may be disqualified by the commission in a commission proceeding in which the commissioner cannot render a fair and impartial judgment.
- Commission issues and enforces fines and makes recommendations to superintending authorities for other penalties.
- Government contractors and potential government contractors are held accountable through disclosure rules.
Transparency, Public Notice, Reporting
- Public has a known, accessible location to submit complaints and advisory inquiries.
- Commission provides robust annual public reporting on its activities and decisions.
- Commission provides a timely, equitable process and determinations, and public notice of determinations.
- Process to submit a complaint and subsequent process is clear and accessible to the public.
- Commission provides a publicly accessible advisory process and timely advisory guidance and opinions.
- Disclosure of complaints and response provides transparency to the public.
- The standard of evidence to be applied by the commission is “preponderance of the evidence”, meaning that the commission is required to find that at least 51 percent of the evidence shown favors the complainant’s facts.
These principles are supported by the following organizations:
ACI – Association of Commerce and Industry
League of Women Voters
New Mexico First
NM Common Cause
NM Ethics Watch
New Mexico First's position on current ethics commission legislation, HB4 - State Ethics Commission Act: Monitoring