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The New Mexico Open Meetings Act requires the Las Cruces City council and other government entities to provide notice before each meeting and access to see and hear what is happening during each meeting.
That’s it. There is no requirement to allow for public input. They have to let us watch, but they don't have to let us participate.
Most boards, the local city council included, have established their own rules as to how and when the public is allowed to be heard. There may not be a legal imperative to provide for public input, but there is a political one.
Typically at city council meetings, time is set aside toward the start of the meeting for the public to speak on anything that is not on the agenda that day. There are then additional opportunities for public input throughout the meeting as each agenda item is discussed.
That was before COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, the council has been holding virtual meetings, allowing for virtual public input via email. It’s important to note, however, that the decisions reached and ordinances passed won’t be virtual. They’ll be very real.
During a recent work session on police reform, a number of people wanted to weigh in, both in support of reform and in support of police, which was not at all surprising. Many of them submitted passionate, strongly worded emails to drive home their points.
The submissions were then read aloud by Mayor Ken Miyagishima in a flat, neutral tone.
Public input can make a difference. I’ve seen numerous times when a large, vocal, well-organized group was able to change the outcome of a vote. Public officials either had a legitimate change of heart or lacked the courage to vote against the crowd. Either way, the result was changed.
It’s hard to imagine anybody having their mind changed by the mayor’s dry recitation of other people’s emails.
About the only advantage to the new system is that nobody is able to enhance their argument through the use of semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders.
The virtual meetings may have made sense during the early days of the coronavirus spread, when most of society was shut down and we were still learning about what precautions were the most effective.
But they don’t make sense anymore. It would seem clear now that this virus will be with us for the foreseeable future. That means the most vulnerable will need to remain at home, while everyone else figures out how to return to their jobs safely.
There is plenty of room in the council chambers for all members of the council to attend while still maintaining adequate social distancing. There is also enough room to allow the public inside the chambers to speak to council members in person, waiting outside the chambers until it is their turn.
City council members are essential workers. Some of their job can be done from home, but not all of it. Not only do the virtual meetings shortchange public input, they are also plagued by the frustrating communication gaps and lapses that are always part of electronic meetings.
Police reform is just one of several critical issues city leaders will be addressing in the coming weeks. They need to come back to City Hall and invite the public back into the process as they face the critical decisions to come in the weeks and months ahead.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.