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Lawmakers move to guarantee New Mexicans right to comment at public meetings

By   /   March 19, 2015  /   No Comments

Part 8 of 9 in the series Sunshine Week
Photo by Brigette Russell

PUBLIC COMMENT IN ACTION: People line up to speak at House committee hearing on right-to-work bill.

By Brigette Russell │ Watchdog.org

SANTA FE, N.M. — Residents have the right to attend and listen at public meetings in New Mexico, but not to speak.

State Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, and state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, are trying to change that, guaranteeing New Mexicans the right to speak their minds before any public body in the state.

House Bill 378, sponsored by Smith and Ivey-Soto, unanimously passed two committees but has not yet been heard by the House. With fewer than 72 hours before the session adjourns Saturday, the bill would still need to pass the Senate, as well.

“Most public bodies in New Mexico provide an opportunity for public comment,” Ivey-Soto told Watchdog. “Unfortunately, not every public body does so. So we wanted to provide in the Open Meetings Act the requirement to cover those public bodies that have been resistant to hearing from their constituents.”

“We had a lot of issues last year with open meetings,” Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, told Watchdog, “especially public comment periods, and trying to chill speech, or citizens who were not able to speak up during meetings.”

The Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the State Board of Finance, wrote in an agency analysis of the bill, quoted in the fiscal impact report, that the SBOF now allows written comment, “which allows for a more efficient use of the SBOF’s quorum time.”

The bill was amended in committee to remove language about allowing a reasonable time for public comment. “The feedback we got from public bodies that had been good actors in the field had been concerned that this was opening the door to litigation by people who were dissatisfied,” Ivey-Soto said. “The new language leaves the principle in statute, and leaves it to the bodies to adopt policies on how to implement it.”

“You can have reasonable restrictions on time, place and manner,” Boe said. “Length of time, that’s a policy decision. What we wanted was just one sentence, that the public has a right to be heard at public meetings, that would put public bodies in a position where they had to come up with a policy.”

With bipartisan sponsorship, there’s no reason the proposal should get bogged down in end-of-session wrangling between the leadership of the Republican House and Democratic Senate.

Legislators have a good reputation for allowing public comment in the committee hearing process.

“From what I’ve observed at the Legislature, they do a pretty darn good job of letting the public speak,” Boe said.

Whether lawmakers will require all public bodies do so remains to be seen.

Part of 9 in the series Sunshine Week

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Brigette Russell, formally served as a staff reporter for Watchdog.org.