Legislature may require public comment periods

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IMG_6111You may not want to listen to your nutty neighbor badger the city council about chemtrails or aliens, First Amendment advocates say allowing public comments—even wacky comments—is essential. A bill moving through the state Legislature would make it the law.

The proposal (HB 378), sponsored by state Rep. James E. Smith, R-Sandia Park, and Sen. Daniel A. Ivey- Soto, D- Albuquerque, adds one sentence to the Open Meetings Act: “A public body shall provide an opportunity for oral public comment on matters within the authority of the public body.”

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is behind the bill.

“We really don’t have a democracy if we’re not allowed to say things that are contrary to the actions of our elected officials,” Executive Director Susan Boe said Monday. “We really need to welcome this messiness that we call democracy.”

Critics of the bill are concerned that allowing public comment periods may take up too much time and perhaps even require them to meet more often.

But the current wording is a compromise that gives officials leeway to determine how long the comment period will be, how long each person will be able to talk—and how often the comment period will be offered, Boe said.

Although the state Open Meetings Act dictates that “all persons desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings,” it doesn’t require the government to allow members of the public to share their opinions on the matters at hand.

Several public bodies have tried to limit public input by banning criticism or negative comments altogether. When the Village of Ruidoso created a policy than banned “any negative mention . . . of any Village personnel, staff, or of the Governing Body” in public comments, a federal court declared the policy an unconstitutional restriction of free speech because it allowed praise but not criticism.

Another recent court decision reprimanded an effort by the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education to limit the speech of a persistent gadfly—but also pointed out the gap in the law, noting “the Legislature has not designated public meetings as public forums for speech or debate by attendees.”

The discussion of public meetings comes during Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote dialogue on the importance of open government and freedom of information.

The House is expected to vote on the bill early this week. It would then have only a few days to get through the Senate before the 2015 Legislative session wraps on Saturday.

To listen to the audio version that ran NMID’s media partner KUNM, click here.

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