Commentary: In a column four months ago, I wrote that the people running the downtown Farmer’s Market had been “very helpful” with a group I was working with to raise funds for homeless students in the Las Cruces school district.
In the more than 16 years that I have been writing this weekly column, I have never penned a sentence that was as wrong. I confused the people running the market with the woman who was in charge of collecting rent for the walkway leading to the Farmer’s Market. She was not only helpful, but took a real interest in what we were doing.
The owners of Dragonfly Restaurant, where we eventually set up shop after being shooed off the Farmer’s Market, were more than helpful, as were those at the Wal-Mart on Rinconada, where we also had a table.
The people running the Farmer’s Market were the opposite of helpful.
And so, I wasn’t really surprised last week when the market’s inflexible rules crashed headlong into the First Amendment.
The problem came when third-party voter registration agents were told they could not walk through the market seeking to sign up new voters. When they objected that their First Amendment rights were being violated, an initial compromise was reached where they were required to stay in front of one property.
That has been replaced by a second compromise in which the Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office will staff a voter registration booth, but third-party agents will still not be allowed to circulate through the market.
That compromise was worked out between County Clerk Scott Krahling and Las Cruces Business Development Administrator Mandy Guss. The people who filed the complaints, and whose constitutional rights were being negotiated away, weren’t at the table.
City Attorney Jennifer Vega-Brown will get the first official say as to whether the First Amendment is something that can compromised. But others have already weighed in.
“We believe it’s an allowable activity under the First Amendment,” City Manager Stuart Ed said.
“I personally believe we shouldn’t be limiting access,” Krahling said.
“Any permanent solution that does not include the unrestricted ability of voter registration agents to walk Main Street will be unconstitutional. It’s protected speech,” said Sam Bradley, one of those prevented from registering new voters.
The Farmer’s Market leases space on Main Street from the city for the events each Wednesday and Saturday, and is notoriously aggressive in attempting to protect its vendors. To some extent, I understand that.
If I have paid money for a booth to sell my hand-crafted jewelry, it’s not fair to let somebody who hasn’t paid walk up and down the street selling their hand-crafted jewelry.
But shooing us away only made sense if you believe that people come to the market with a set amount of money, and every dollar given to charity is a dollar not spent at the booths.
Shooing away people trying to register voters makes no sense at all. How are they competing with my fictional hand-crafted jewelry business?
Vega-Brown gets the first call as to whether this compromise is constitutional, but if she decides that it is, hers will certainly not be the final call.
The city needs to take control of the situation. If the case does end up in court, it will be city taxpayers footing the bill, not Farmer’s Market officials. All in the service of preventing people from registering to vote.