Union or Non-Union? Inquiring Minds in New Mexico Want to Know

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 15, 2012 3 min read
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On May 10, I wrote a short item on the Albuquerque Teachers Federation’s “no confidence” vote in New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera, based on a grab bag of grievances. Now, another incident related to state teachers’ unions has gotten a spokesman for the New Mexico education department into a sticky wicket.

The Sante Fe New Mexican reported on June 11 that in response to a request from Jay McCleskey, the chief political advisor for GOP Gov. Susana Martinez (who appointed Skandera), the education department’s spokesman, Larry Behrens, sent McCleskey a list of all teachers’ email addresses, culled from district web sites, as well as a list of all “non-union teachers.” (By “non-union teachers” Behrens meant teachers working in districts with no collective bargaining agreement.)

The problem? Behrens responded using his personal email account, not his state account. One of the recipients of Behrens’ email was Skandera, who then forwarded it to Martinez.

Obviously, the made-to-order cynical interpretation of this is that Behrens was improperly doing political work for the Martinez campaign on the side (and until these emails came out, on the sly), instead of acting in his role as a neutral, apolitical government employee. A June 12 statement from the Democratic Party of New Mexico read in part: “It is illegal—plain and simple—to use state resources for political purposes. But once again hard-working New Mexicans are learning the hard way that allowing the Governor’s unelected, unaccountable political handler to call the shots for Susana is a mistake for New Mexico. Jay McCleskey and the rest of the administration broke that law, and now there is proof she knew about it.”

The Sante Fe New Mexican published another article June 14 on the potential broader use of private emails for public purposes by members of Martinez’s staff. A spokesman for the governor, Scott Darnell, claimed the issue was without merit, and was being ginned up by the attorney of a former state employee for personal purposes. He also said the governor’s office was following the rules when it came to which emails had to be sent from state email accounts.

Behrens denied to the newspaper that he was doing political work for Martinez. He said that he simply made a mistake and should have sent the information from his work account, since it was in response to a public information request and therefore official “state business.” He told the newspaper that he subsequently denied another request from an assistant to McCleskey seeking more detailed teacher information, using his state email.

Stephanie Ly, president of AFT New Mexico, said that even though Behrens may have been responding to a public information request, a government employee is prohibited by state law from using government resources to contribute information for political purposes, which trumps the request for public information.

“She expects us to be transparent. We expect the governor to be transparent,” Ly said.

To support her point, Ly cited the state’s Governmental Conduct Act. Part of that law states that a public officer or employee is prohibited from “coercing or attempting to coerce” another public employee to give “anything of value” to anyone or any group “for a political purpose.” Was Behrens “coerced” in any fashion by a public official? And is the list something “of value” the way the law means it?

Of course, another question is why Martinez’s campaign wanted this information in the first place. One well-recognized political gambit is to attempt to ascertain if union members are engaged in political activities while they are supposed to be “on the clock.” Then again, the list Behrens sent was for teachers not working in districts with union contracts.

Ly said there’s a possibility Martinez may try to target non-union teachers to enlist their support for the education policies she has supported, at the same time AFT New Mexico (which has about 8,000 members) is fighting those policies.

Far away from New Mexico, a list of teachers in a Pennsylvania school district who went on strike, along with their yearly pay and benefits, was published in a newspaper in an ad paid for by an anti-union group. As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it: “The ad, prepared from data collected by local taxpayer activists in a right-to-know request, showed that the average Neshaminy striker received pay and benefits costing more than $100,000 a year.” The anti-union group painted the teachers as greedy. And notice that the group got the teachers’ information through a public information request.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.