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Mayor removes office doors after open meetings dispute

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Mayor removes office doors after open meetings dispute

  • Las Cruces mayor Bill Mattiace was sued after conducting public business with other council members in private.

June 3, 2003 — Soon after being elected last March 2003 as mayor of Las Cruces, N.M., Bill Mattiace removed the doors to his office to reenforce his policy of openness.

“If it has anything to deal with tax payers money, it can be heard by anyone,” Mattiace said. “It allows for open conversation and it shows that there are no secrets for this mayor.”

However, some say Mattiace’s door wasn’t always so open. Mattiace, former mayor Ruben Smith and other council members are being sued for conducting what is known as a “rolling poll,” where council members discuss where they stand on public matters with one another rather than publicly as required by the open meeting law. Mattiace was a city council member at the time of the incident. The lawsuit was filed by the Las Cruces Sun-News and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government in February with a state district court in in Las Cruces.

According to Walter Rubel, managing editor of Las Cruces Sun-News, Mattiace is being sued because, prior to his election, he and two other council members “got together and hammered out a compromise” regarding a conflict. Upon discovering this, Smith issued a letter to the council accusing Mattiace of holding a rolling poll. But because Smith sent out a letter and had six out of the seven council members signed the letter in agreement, he too was sued for a public meetings violation.

“By the time it [got] to the council meeting, everyone already decided how they would vote,” Rubel said “There [was] not an open discussion debate that you would hope for.”

Mattiace said that he had never made any arrangements behind closed doors, that it had always been his philosophy that conversation and information has to be shared openly. Mattiace added that his no-door policy was not in response to the lawsuit.

“If there is an action taken on the information you’ve shared, that I believe can be construed as a violation,” Mattiace said. “If there’s no action taken, it’s just me going to each person and asking, ‘isn’t the weather nice today?'”

Sun-News attorney Martin Esquivel disagrees.

“This is a classic case of a violation of the open meetings act where certain board members are meeting behind closed doors in order to conduct business,” Esquivel said.

Esquivel said that the issue is whether or not members are allowed to conduct a rolling poll without discussing the issues openly.

“Anytime you’re dealing with issues of access you’re dealing with the First Amendment,” said Esquivel “[A] rolling poll not only violates state statutes, but First Amendment rights as well.”

(Las Cruces Sun-News and Foundation for Open Government v. City of Las Cruces; Media counsel: Martin Esquivel, Albuquerque, N. M.) LG

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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