Thursday, April 23, 2009

(Updated) 5:30 PM Today: NMI to Host Webcast, Live Blog of ABQ Charter Review Task Force

Update: Bottom line, the Task Force voted (with four no votes) to pass -- not the proposed amendment -- but a motion to pass along the commentary on the proposed amendment to the City Council. In other words, nobody seemed to want to make a decision on the amendment itself. Perhaps the powers behind this effort are content to keep publicly raising illogical and inaccurate points about nonprofits and stirring the pot because they know full well what they are proposing wouldn't pass muster legally in terms of constitutionality. We'll just have to watch and see what emerges.

I personally find it ironic that, after so much public whining, the people pushing this amendment refused to move for a vote on it.
CitylogoI was bummed that tonight's meeting of Albuquerque's Charter Review Task Force couldn't be streamed via GOV-TV because no camera setup exists in the room they're using. Well, I'm unbummed now because the New Mexico Independent has decided to try a webcast and live blog from the meeting, which starts at 5:30 PM today on the 9th floor of City Hall. Another treat for political junkies from Gwyneth and the gang.

Click here to join the liveblog and see the webcast, which should begin a few minutes before the meeting starts. Here's the agenda.

I posted yesterday and last Friday about the attempt by Task Force members Chuck Gara, Dan Silva and Steve Gallegos (and their cronies) to pass an amendment to the Charter that seeks to hamstring the free speech rights of nonprofits and who knows how many others who comment on government and issues. In a draft opinion issued this week, the City Attorney's office deemed the proposed amendment "redundant." In other words, it's a just another excuse to try to demonize the educational and issue advocacy roles of the targeted nonprofits and blame them for the weakening clout of the business-as-usual, anti-reform politicos. These sorts just can't understand why the public is turning against them.

This bunch actually believes a few mailers sent out months before an election that contained info on legislator voting records and campaign donations were what caused longtime incumbent legislators like Shannon Robinson, James Taylor and Dan Silva to be beaten in their Dem primaries. Oh, it couldn't be that they were challenged by smart, honest, progressive, hardworking candidates who went door to door to engage the voters. And that the incumbents hadn't connected with their constituents for years on end. No, that couldn't be it.

The Task Force will take public commentary at the beginning of the meeting and then discuss the misguided amendment to change the election code. Finally, the group will vote on all of the proposed amendments to the Charter. The Task Force has been meeting since August of 2008.

April 23, 2009 at 04:00 PM in 2009 Albuquerque City Council Races, 2009 Albuquerque Mayoral Race, Business, City of Albuquerque, Civil Liberties, Government, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Local Organizations Release Letter Criticizing ABQ Charter Amendment Aimed at Squelching Free Speech

Last Friday, I wrote about the last-minute introduction of a proposed amendment to the Albuquerque City Charter by real estate developer Chuck Gara at the April 2nd meeting of the City's Charter Review Task Force. The amendment is clearly aimed at stifling public discourse by certain targeted nonprofits and others. It's written so loosely it could negatively impact almost anyone who dares to comment about pretty much any aspect of city government or issues before it, office holders or possible candidates during a four-month period before elections. The City version of the effort to hamstring nonprofits (and others) follows closely on the heels of a similar attempt at this year's New Mexico Legislature.

DanSilvaThose who spoke in favor of Gara's vaguely written, confusing City Charter amendment included former Rep. Dan Silva (right) -- who's now a registered lobbyist for NM GOP Chair Henry Yates' Jalapeno Corporation -- and former City Councilor and County Commissioner Steve Gallegos. Recall that Silva previously received help with his legal fees from the New Mexico Turn Around PAC, which is funded almost entirely by Yates-related companies The Yates family is the largest holder of oil and gas leases on federal land in the USA.

All three of the amendment's main supporters can be considered close allies of Mayor Marty Chavez. In fact, Marty appointed both Silva and Gallegos to the Task Force, while Gara was tapped by City Councilor Sally Mayer, who often sides with the Mayor on development and economic issues.

Although proponents of the amendment wanted to rush a vote on it at the April 2nd meeting, cooler heads prevailed in light of the complex legal and constitutional issues raised by the measure and the vote was delayed until tomorrow's meeting of the Task Force when a report is due from the City Attorney's Office on the proposal's legal ramifications.

The Letter
A copy of a letter sent to Task Force members by a number of local organizations on April 20, 2009 was released by them today. The letter expresses "deep concerns" about the legal basis for the amendment and urges members to oppose it. Click to read the letter (pdf). The groups are:

  • Peanut Butter & Jelly Family Services, Inc.
  • ACLU of New Mexico
  • Albuquerque Independent Business Alliance
  • Common Cause New Mexico
  • Community Action New Mexico
  • AFSCME Council 18

The letter says, in part:

The amendment would prevent an organization from issuing any kind of communication four months before an election. For example, a domestic violence shelter could not send an email to its supporters about a matter pending before the Albuquerque City Council in June of an election year.

... Since there was no credible legal argument to support this type of measure against nonprofits' free speech in the legislature, there is none to support it at the city level. In light of that, we can only understand the introduction of this amendment as a completely unwarranted political attack against nonprofits. [emphasis mine]

Concerned? Attend Tomorrow's Meeting
Here's the agenda (pdf) of tomorrow's Task Force Meeting, which will be held on April 23, 2009 at 5:30 PM at the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Government Center at 5th and Marquette in the Council Committee Room on the 9th Floor, Suite 9081. Public comments will be accepted at the meeting, according to the agenda.

April 22, 2009 at 01:48 PM in 2009 Albuquerque City Council Races, 2009 Albuquerque Mayoral Race, Business, City of Albuquerque, Civil Liberties, Ethics & Campaign Reform, Government | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Attacks on Free Speech Rights of Nonprofits (and Others) Continue in New Mexico

So do you think the dark forces behind certain political figures are scared the public is learning too much about their influence and the voting records of those they support with large campaign contributions? Do you think these string pullers are concerned because the public is pushing nonstop for ethics and campaign finance reform and other measures to increase transparency and accountability in government? 

Do you think politicos who want to keep things all cozy and secretive in the legislature and local government are worried because some long-time business-as-usual types got beaten in recent elections? Do you think the enactment of the campaign contributions cap and the failure of the SunCal TIDD bill are giving the big donor crowd the jitters?

I don't see how anyone could come to any other conclusion given the onslaught of scapegoating against public interest nonprofits and other clean government advocates that's gone on for many moons -- and continues today. What else can explain it?

First, we had the discombobulated sour grapes lawsuit filed against nonprofits and winning legislative candidates by the losers in last year's Dem primary election -- former State Rep. Dan Silva and former Senators James Taylor and Shannon Robinson. That was summarily thrown out by the judge. It was a mockery.

Then we had the non-opinion opinion of Attorney General Gary King that reportedly claimed that direct mail pieces about legislator voting records constituted electioneering -- or something -- based on King's oddball explanation that the material "walked like a duck and talked like a duck." The issue is still in limbo pending a court case and an official opinion issued by King has never been publicly released. He has never definitively explained his decision or the reasons he made it.

Next came a bunch of suspicious leaks from AG King and unnamed sources to the always suspect Monahan blog. The theme was bagging nonprofits and the assault included threats from the AG that fines and punishments were coming -- for something.

During the recently concluded Legislative Session, we were treated to a plethora of negative (and often ill-informed) comments from House and Senate leaders about nonprofits and their supposedly nasty allegiances and goals. These accompanied several disjointed attempts to enact vaguely written measures that sought to hamstring the free speech of nonprofits -- and to hell with the Constitution. Mercy. None of them passed, although they clearly were meant to chill the activities of the nonprofits. The only group publicly supporting the efforts was the Association of Commerce and Industry (ACI).

Anti-Nonprofit Efforts Move to Charter Review Task Force
And now, believe it or not, the crusade against truth telling has spread to the City of Albuquerque's Charter Review Task Force. There, the forces of darkness are trying to push through a vague and almost certainly unconstitutional amendment that might well force pretty much anyone -- including nonprofits, bloggers or individuals acting on their own -- to file financial reports if they dare to say pretty much anything that might be construed as political for 120 days before any municipal election. That would mean that for four months before any city contest -- including the upcoming mayoral and city council elections -- nobody would be able to communicate to the public in any way about anything incumbents or candidates do, say or stand for, because it might -- you know -- influence the election in some way. I'm not kidding.

You can read about the proposed amendment to Article 13 of the City's Election Code in a recent story at the New Mexico Independent. Quote: 

Under the proposal, the organization — be it a corporation, limited liability corporation, nonprofit or “any person or combination of two or more persons acting jointly” — would trigger the requirement if they communicated such information via newspaper, TV, radio, Internet, on a billboard, or by direct mail or in door-to-door within 120 days of an election.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

The Ringleaders: Gara, Silva and Gallegos
Chuck Gara, a big-time sprawler, real estate developer (and friend of Mayor Marty Chavez and ACI) chosen by Councilor Sally Mayer to serve on the Task Force, sprang the amendment on the group at its April 2nd meeting. It would require each "offending" group or individual to register as a Measured Finance Committee, which is the City’s version of a political action committee (PAC). 

Also speaking on behalf of the muzzling attempt was Dan Silva -- yes that Dan Silva -- one of the losing legislators who mounted that crazy lawsuit written by Shannon Robinson. Democrat Dan, appointed to the Task Force by Mayor Marty, is now working as a registered lobbyist for none other than Harvey Yates. Yes, that Harvey Yates -- of the Jalapeno Corporation, a high rolling oil and gas company. Harvey just happens to be the current chair of the New Mexico GOP. They always say politics make strange bedfellows. 

The other member of the trio pushing the City Charter change is Steve Gallegos, another of the Mayor's appointees. Gallegos is a former BernCo Commissioner and City Councilor who just made the news again today trying unsuccessfully to convince the National Hispanic Cultural Center board not to support the removal of Manny Aragon's name from the Center's Torreon:

Former Bernalillo County Commissioner Steve Gallegos asked the board to remember the good things Aragon did for the community and to let people decide for themselves how he should be remembered.

"Manny Aragon really needs to be recognized for what he did. He did bad toward the end, but I have seen that man toil for the good of our communities, especially our poor communities," Gallegos said. "Don't rewrite history. His name's already on it. ... Would we become a better community by taking the name down? I would say no."

Gallegos, then a city councilor, asked Aragon for a job as Senate sergeant-at-arms in 1995, a post he held for three years. At the time, some criticized the hiring, saying it sent the wrong message about the influence of state legislators over local government officials.

So we know what side of the street Gallegos strolls on.

Complexities and Confusion
Fortunately the Task Force delayed action on the amendment until its April 23rd meeting, despite the push by Gara and the others to force a quick vote. I watched most of the discussion on the amendment on the City's cable channel and it was clear that more than a few Task Force members were confused about the complexities and legalities of the amendment. Such a vaguely worded change to the City Charter certainly raises a host of legal and constitutional issues that the Mayor's trio apparently wanted to sidestep.

Even the supporters of the amendment seemed more than a little confused about their proposal. Gallegos mentioned how he didn't like the "Swift Boat kind of stuff" that's gone on in national elections as one reason he supported the amendment. Well, there's a big difference between 527 groups and public interest nonprofits at the local level, but it's one big ball of wax in Steve's world. Gallegos claimed, however, that the intent was to do what's best for the community. In that vein, he spoke about how it might be worthwhile to challenge the nonprofits with the amendment even if it couldn't pass constitutional muster. He compared the amendment to past local government efforts like challenges to pornography laws that were ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court.

I don't know, I find it more than a little odd that certain parties on the Charter Review Task Force, which among other things is charged with defending First Amendment rights of citizens, would be finagling to get First Amendment rights curtailed by enacting onerous reporting requirements willy nilly. 

Who Decides Using Which Critera?
It's unclear who would decide whether an activity was verboten under the amendment and what criteria would be used to judge whether or not something was done to aid or oppose a candidate. Would a communication complaining about a council member's vote on some issue break the rules? If a journalist or blogger published an opinion piece on some issue that might be construed as for or against an incumbent with a view on that issue within the 120-day window, would they have to file as a Measure Finance Committee? It's not clear in the proposed language.

Chuck Gara claimed that it was all in the interpretation -- but nobody knows who would be in charge of making the interpretation. Gara said something at the meeting to the effect that it might be okay to send out info on a candidate's voting record IF it's framed correctly but that the same info might be deemed to have an influence if it were framed in a different way. Mighty muddy water, isn't it?

Before the meeting ended, the discussion strayed into the possibility of scrapping the City's public campaign funding program in its entirely. It shouldn't be surprising that Silva and Gara both spoke in support of that idea. Why? In essence, they claimed that business interests were getting a bad rap in the City and were no longer wielding enough clout in the election arena. You can't make this stuff up.

What Happens Next?
We'll see what happens at the next meeting of the Charter Review Task Force on April 23. Whatever they decide on, the Albuquerque City Council will have to vote to approve the Task Force recommendations. The approved amendments would then go before the voters. If the Task Force approves the nutty amendment seeking to undermine public interest nonprofits or approves the scrapping of our public campaign finance program, we'll let you know. And then we'll all have to join together to convince the City Council not to follow in the sleazy footsteps of those who want to recklessly limit the First Amendment rights of concerned citizens.

April 17, 2009 at 02:04 PM in 2009 Albuquerque City Council Races, 2009 Albuquerque Mayoral Race, Business, City of Albuquerque, Civil Liberties, Ethics & Campaign Reform, Government | Permalink | Comments (19)