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City: It’s legal to ban videos at personnel hearings

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The city of Albuquerque in a letter to the state Attorney General’s Office contends its personnel hearings are exempt from the state Open Meetings Act because the hearing officer makes recommendations – not final decisions – for employees facing discipline.

Open government advocates, however, said the city is circumventing the state open meetings law and its own ordinances that say the hearings are public meetings, which means agendas should be posted in advance and reasonable accommodations have to be made to allow people to record them.

The city’s letter was in response to an inquiry from the Attorney General’s Office, which received a complaint accusing the city of violating state open meetings laws by holding hearings for city employees who are appealing being disciplined or fired.

The hearings gained recent attention after local media and citizens were prohibited from videotaping the hearings for fired police officers.

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Charles Arasim, an Albuquerque native, filed the complaint after he was ordered to stop recording a hearing for former APD officer Gil Vigil, who was fired in connection to the Omaree Varela child abuse investigation.

Local television stations had previously been barred from an administrative hearing for fired-officer Jeremy Dear, who was terminated for several lapel camera and other policy violations.

Both Dear and Varela’s hearings were postponed after a conflict between the hearing officers and the cameramen.

Greg Williams, the president for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the city’s own ordinances state that personnel board meetings and hearings shall comply with the Open Meetings Act.

“For the city to argue that the Open Meetings Act only applies to the personnel board meetings and not the hearings is directly contradicted by the city ordinance,” he said.

In a response letter to the Attorney General’s Office dated April 21, Jenica Jacobi, acting city attorney at the time, said the hearings didn’t have to comply with the Open Meetings Act because the hearing officers “are separate and lack any power to make decisions on behalf of the Personnel Board and are therefore not subject to” open meetings laws.

Jacobi said there was confusion about the meetings, because the Open Meetings Act compliance guide specifically refers to these types of administrative hearings and says they are public meetings because the hearing officers are “exercising the City Council’s delegated authority to terminate employees.”

But Jacobi said that rule doesn’t apply to Albuquerque because the hearing officers don’t fire or discipline anyone.

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They gather evidence at the hearing, then make a report with a recommendation that the city’s personnel board votes for or against.

The personnel board hearings are subject to the Open Meetings Act, Jacobi said.

The fact-finding hearings are open to the public, but hearing officers can prohibit anyone in the audience from using video- and audio-recording devices, Jacobi said in the letter.

James Hallinan, a spokesman for the attorney general, said the Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the matter.

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