April 29, 2015

Sunshine group criticizes ABQ’s stance on personnel hearings

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Screenshot from a video by activist Charles Arasim.

A state advocacy group for government transparency disagrees with the City of Albuquerque’s contention that its public personnel hearings aren’t subject to the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.

Screenshot from a video by activist Charles Arasim.

Screenshot from a video by Charles Arasim.

Greg Williams, board president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the public should be able to videotape the meetings.

“We think they are subject to OMA,” Williams told New Mexico Political Report. “But even if they are not, [the hearings] are public. And if they’re public, that means anyone can attend, and that includes being able to video- and audio-record the meetings.”

In March, Albuquerque resident Charles Arasim filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office alleging that the city violated OMA after he was prevented from videotaping city personnel hearings.

Arasim, a community advocate, has been following personnel hearings regarding Albuquerque police officers. Arasim uploads his videos on his YouTube channel for the public to watch.

Personnel hearings can happen after a current or former city employee files a grievances if they’ve felt wrongfully treated. At these hearings, an independent hearing officer listens to arguments from both sides before making a recommendation. The recommendation goes to the city’s Personnel Board.

The Personnel Board then makes a decision on if the employee was wrongfully treated.

Because the board is supposed to be made up of appointees from the mayor and elected members from city employees, its meetings are subject to the state Open Meetings Act.

But the hearing officers, according to the city, aren’t because they’re “only making recommendations,” according to assistant city attorney Nicholas Bullock.

The hearings are still open for the public to attend, but they don’t, according to the city, have to meet a provision in OMA that requires accommodation to people who want to record them.

Bullock cites an example listed in the Attorney General’s Open Meetings Act Compliance Guide to back up the city’s argument:

The parents in a school district have been asked by the superintendent to form a group to study the district’s athletic programs and make recommendations to the school board. The group’s recommendations are not binding on the board. Because they act solely in an advisory capacity, and have no authority to make decisions on behalf of the board, the parents do not constitute a policymaking body of the school district and their meetings are not subject to the provisions of the Act.

Bullock told New Mexico Political Report that this example is “analogous” to personnel hearings.

“If a board or administrative hearing officer is issuing a recommendation, then that determination is not subject to OMA,” he said.

Williams, however, argues that the city must allow recordings to happen if it continues to claim that the meetings are public. Not everyone can physically attend a public meeting, which Williams said means that the city must accommodate recording equipment.

Otherwise, he argued, the hearings risk becoming closed meetings that get rubber stamped by the Personnel Board.

“In trying to limit the recordings, hearing officers are trying to limit access,” Williams said. “Because it’s a public hearing, you really cannot do anything to eliminate public access.”

But Bullock said that the city’s own audio recordings of each personnel hearings help meet this threshold. They’re available at the city clerk’s office in downtown Albuquerque.

The recordings are not posted by the city online, but Bullock said “you can go down and inspect them for free.”

New Mexico Political Report took Bullock up on the challenge Tuesday afternoon. At the city clerk’s office, an employee did indeed allow this reporter to listen to one of the most recent personnel hearings for free.

Still, she said this was the first time she could remember anyone asking to inspect an audio recording rather than purchase it on a disc, which costs $6.75, to bring home.

Recordings of personnel hearings are usually available at the city clerk’s office during the same day of the hearing, she said. But if a hearing goes all day, the recording won’t likely be available until the next day.

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