The settlement will also cost taxpayers $14,000.
“In a healthy democracy, the public must be able to criticize their government without fear of suppression or retaliation,” ACLU-NM director Peter Simonson said in a news release. “This settlement not only affirms that right, but expands the public’s ability to communicate with this commission.”
The settlement comes from an ACLU First Amendment lawsuit filed against the Police Oversight Commission in April. The lawsuit was based on a December exchange between a commissioner and an activist who was concerned about a potential conflict of interest for then-POC chairwoman Linda Martinez.
Commissioner Richard Shine said that activists couldn’t speak about the conflict of interest because the commission had already voted unanimously that none existed.
“You do not have an unlimited right to come up and speak about anything you want, and say anything you want during public comment,” commissioner Richard Shine sternly told the dozen-member audience at the December meeting.
One activist, Andres Valdez, was then removed from the meeting. He has a separate lawsuit from the April confrontation that is in its beginning stages in federal court.
An assistant city attorney who negotiated with the ACLU attorneys and plaintiffs Kenneth Ellis Jr., Charles Arasim and Silvio Dell’Angela said that, while he still doesn’t believe the commission violated the activists’ freedom of speech, the settlement conditions were agreeable enough.
“There’s enough of a gray area there where $14,000 is a reasonable settlement,” attorney Greg Wheeler said. “… I still don’t think their freedom of speech was violated.”
That’s because, Wheeler said earlier, the plaintiffs have many other avenues to express their concerns, and their freedom of expression was not diminished as a result of the commission’s action.
The negotiations took five hours, he said.
As a result of the settlement, Shine is now ordered to introduce new reforms to the commission’s public comment process. Those orders were the plaintiffs’ ideas, Wheeler said, and are fairly common in settlements like this one.
Those reforms, which could be nullified by a majority of the nine-member commission, include increasing public comment from two minutes to three minutes and allowing up to three members of the public to donate their time to another commenter.
Apart from the settlement, the commission also voluntarily agreed to implement a few new changes to the police oversight process, including:
• Allowing the public to discuss any agenda issue during the public comments period.
• Permitting the public to use police officers’ names when discussing complaints.
• Validating parking for citizens who wish to speak during the public comments period.