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Public comment part of messy process


Most Americans think we have the right to attend public meetings and let our elected officials know what we think about how they’re doing.

There is no such right in New Mexico.

Our open meetings law requires that accommodations be made for the public to attend and listen to meetings of the City Council, County Commission and other government boards and commissions. But, there’s nothing that says we have the right to speak at those meetings.

It’s up to each board to set its own rules. Typically, elected leaders understand the obvious danger in ignoring the voters, and allow for public comment. But they’re not required to.

The Las Cruces City Council provides ample opportunity for the public at its meetings. There’s a chance to speak for or against every item on the agenda before a final vote is taken. And, there is time reserved at the start of the meeting for public comment about things not on the agenda.

That open comment period has recently become problematic, with an organized effort by critics of the City Council who are concerned about crime in their neighborhoods and at their places of business. That has led to an organized effort by supporters of the City Council to defend them.

Maybe that’s just democracy in all of its messy glory, and if the meeting gets delayed for a while, who cares?

But I do understand the frustration of City Council members who, under the current rules of order, are unable to respond to criticism.

During a recent interview on KTAL-LP community radio, Mayor Eric Enriquez said he was considering tweaks to the system, but made it clear that the public comment period is not intended to be an open debate.

Enriquez referred to City Council meetings as “business meetings.” He urged people who have concerns about what the city is doing to contact members of the City Council and speak to them directly.

While I agree, I also understand that speaking to the councilor doesn't always resolve the problem. There should be an opportunity for people to raise their concerns publicly.

As a reporter, I wasn’t a fan of public comment. Listening to 20 people trying to find different ways to make the exact same point gets tiring. But, it’s a necessary part of the process.

To raise awareness of government transparency, the American Society of Newspaper Editors created Sunshine Week in 2005. They scheduled it for mid-March every year to pay homage to James Madison, an early proponent of open government.

Newspapers all across the nation jumped on board with a collaborative effort featuring editorials and investigative reports exposing violations of open records or open meetings laws. They flexed their collective muscle, and for a while, Sunshine Week was a thing.

It still is at NMSU, though a little bit later in the month to accommodate Spring Break. Each year the NMSU Library hosts a Sunshine Week event focused on government transparency. This year’s event will be 3 to 4 p.m. March 28 at Branigan Library. I’ll be part of a panel, along with Las Cruces Bulletin Editor Algernon D’Ammassa; former Sun-News cartoonist Bob Diven; and April Burson, managing editor of Kokopelli; looking at the current state of newspaper opinion pages.

And, let’s just put it this way. There’s a reason why Sunshine Week isn’t really a thing anymore.

 Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com. Walter Rubel's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.