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Meetings on proposed cell tower in Mesilla show why communication, public input matters

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Peter Goodman
/

Commentary:

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

People told me Mesilla Mayor Nora Barraza was pushing a 60-foot Verizon cell-phone tower within Mesilla’s historic zone – and stifling dissent.

Few would want such a tower: unsightly; undermining the historic ambiance Mesilla takes great pains to maintain; noise and light pollution; even possible health issues (Verizon’s insurers refuse to cover health risks); and it would violate decades-old ordinances.

At a recent public meeting, The Mayor cut each speaker’s 3 minutes to 2; abandoned the usual practice of letting folks yield part of their time to someone else; and left passionate residents with carefully-constructed comments in the cold. Information on the tower situation was hard to come by. Officials said, “We can’t talk because of litigation.”

The ordinance outlawing such towers provides, “public property owned or otherwise controlled by the Town may be exempt.” Folks feared The Mayor would use that language to push through Verizon’s tower. Curious, I called Mayor Nora Barraza and asked to meet. I had questions. I also thought that the ordinance created no automatic exemption, but meant a specific project could be exempted if the Town so chose, through its board of trustees following normal procedures.

We had a pleasant talk. The Mayor denied wanting to push the deal through. She provided context: an earlier lawsuit that I’d just heard of wasn’t over. As I later learned, last November the U.S. Magistrate overturned the Trustees’ denial of a Verizon application and remanded the case to the Trustees for further proceedings, which meant Mesilla and Verizon had to talk. The Town has asked Verizon for alternatives.

Mayor Barraza told me that the Board of Trustees would have to decide the matter. The ongoing litigation limited what she could say; but she did not plan to jam this through. (I’m assuming that she never intended to jam this through, not that the uproar caused her to retreat.) She also said the tower would help with public safety.

People had such different views that I wondered how that had happened. Cutting the public’s comment time, which Barraza justified as necessary so everyone could speak, angered folks and seemed to disregard their concerns. Explanations such I’d received)  were apparently not offered to citizens generally. (Likely the litigation complicated communications.) Residents should know that this issue, will recur. Federal law favors Verizon, but takes local factors into account. So watch out – and speak up when necessary.

After interviewing the Mayor, I attended the start of a planning and zoning meeting. Twenty people were there to speak against the tower during public comment. Some had been informed that they could only comment on agenda items. (In city or county meetings, the public addresses agenda items as they come up, and the requirement for speaking during general public comment is to discuss only items not on the agenda.) How things are done matters. I saw citizens being muzzled in a curt, contemptuous manner. That doesn’t enhance community trust. The meeting was rancorous.

After trying to ask a question (with the chair calling for security), I split for the Plaza, to eat chocolate ice cream while sitting on a bench in the sun, listening to kids laugh. Grateful to be exactly where I was.

And I’m grateful to live in a thoughtful community with diverse views expressed by people who care.