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Closed committee meeting causes angst

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Another contentious question has arisen in Rio Rancho politics: Is it or is it not OK for a governing body special committee to meet behind closed doors?

Councilor Cheryl Everett has formed a committee, with approval of the rest of the governing body, to study how to engage the public in city government using various types of media, including digital social media and cable television. The committee consists of Everett and Councilor Dawnn Robinson, two members of the public and three city employees.

Cheryl Everett.

Cheryl Everett.

Four Rio Rancho Governing Body members make a quorum.

The committee must present at least two possible actions to the governing body.

Independent online reporter Eric Maddy, who applied to become part of the committee but wasn’t selected, tried to attend a recent meeting but was refused entrance. He questioned whether the closed meeting violated the New Mexico Open Meetings Act and wrote to the state Attorney General to seek his opinion.

“It’s a shame, really, that it has come to this,” Maddy said during the public forum at the governing body meeting Wednesday and in a written statement. “Some members of this governing body ran for office this year promising more public involvement. Yet, they choose to do so by conducting meetings behind closed doors.”

Maddy wrote that councilors should prove they believe in open government by making the committee meetings open to the public, even if the public isn’t allowed to comment.

Everett, committee chairwoman, said all she was “hiding” was that she knew little about social media, which was why she needed help from a committee.

“We’re not formulating policy recommendations, we’re discussing options,” she said.

Everett said the meetings were closed because the special committee is a working group focused on a task and she wants members of the public and city staff to be able to “free wheel with ideas.”

It’s hard to get citizens to join in city business, Everett said, and some people are media shy. She is concerned committee members might be afraid they’d be quoted out of context or that comments would get back to the news media, even if no reporters attended.

The committee isn’t subject to the Open Meetings Act, Everett said.

“There’s not a quorum of the governing body,” she continued. “There’s not policy being made.”

The governing body makes any related decisions based on the committee’s research and ideas, Everett said.

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