ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Santa Fe school board, which Tuesday night rejected changes to the ground rules for public comment at its meetings, still could have a constitutional problem on its hands if it tries to enforce its rule against comment on “personnel issues,” according to an open government advocate.
A policy which says speakers must avoid personnel issues “is vague and unconstitutional,” Sarah Welsh of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said Wednesday.
“It’s unclear what that means,” she said. “It’s unclear when they’re going to enforce that, who they might shout down. If they follow whatever their conception of that policy is, they’re still vulnerable to violating people’s rights and they could still get sued.”
Over the past few weeks, board members considered various changes and new restrictions on public comment at their meetings.
The public comment issue arose after a local artist and district parent, Cate Moses, had her microphone cut off when at a June meeting she criticized statistics presented by Superintendant Bobbie Gutierrez to justify her contract extension that was approved earlier this year.
The board has considered prohibiting comments about individual students, district staff members except for the superintendent and schools’ legal or administrative proceedings.
But the version of the comment policy up for a vote at Tuesday night’s meeting included only one proposed change.
It would have removed “with the exception of personnel issues” from rule No. 5: “You may speak on any topic, whether it is on the agenda or not, with the exception of personnel issues.”
That change lost in a 2-3 vote. The board will continue operating under its old policy, which also generally asks for a respectful tone and says there may be no sharing of time or public dialogue outside of the public forum period of a board meeting.
“It’s time to let this one go,” said board member Frank Montaño, who said he voted against the change because he wanted to keep the personnel warning in place, as well as something addressing student privacy.
Board Vice President Glenn Wikle, who suggested removing the ban on discussing personnel issues, said the current policy “is not right; it’s not the way government should work.” Board member Steve Carrillo joined Wilke in voting to drop the restriction on comment on personnel matters.
Welsh spoke up in favor dropping the restriction at Tuesday’s meeting. She said Wednesday she was a little surprised when the board voted the measure down and moved on. “It never occurred to me that might happen,” she said.