After several complaints from a local journalist, the New Mexico Attorney General's Office has asked the Lordsburg City Council to improve public access to its official meetings.
Since September, the council's regular meetings have been accessible by the public only via video conference online. However, persistent audio problems made it impossible at times to hear what was being said or by whom.
In a determination letter sent to the city's lawyer, Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp said streaming meetings that are "effectively inaudible" violate New Mexico's Open Meetings Act.
"To be clear, the public attending remotely still has the right to hear everything that is said at the Council’s meetings, and it also has the right to identify who specifically is speaking," Kreienkamp wrote. "It is the Council’s obligation to facilitate these rights and utilize technology that is adequate in both of these regards."
Kreienkamp wrote that the office received several complaints from Jason Watkins, a local reporter and contributor to the Hidalgo County Herald, which first reported about the attorney general's warning.
When the office reviewed a recording of the council's Nov. 17 meeting, Kreienkamp wrote, "We … found certain portions of the meeting nearly impossible to hear. Additionally, we almost never could determine who was speaking, whether it was members of the Council or others attending in-person."
At the outset of the pandemic, the Attorney General's Office issued guidance for complying with transparency laws during the public health emergency, including virtual meetings. Under that guidance, discussion is to be suspended if the audio or video is interrupted, a rule the state Legislature has followed at the Capitol in Santa Fe.
"Although it is not likely a violation of OMA for the Council to meet in person while restricting the public to remote attendance, it is a violation of the statute to effectively deprive the public of the right to attend and listen by utilizing inaudible technology," Kreienkamp warned the city.
Watkins told the Sun-News problems with streaming city council meetings have persisted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and the problem intensified after their August meeting, after some members in attendance tested positive for COVID-19.
Since then, meetings have been accessible to the public — including reporters —only via video stream, with in-person attendance limited to council members and speakers on the agenda.
The issue prompting his complaint, he said, was "a lack of transparency. I really want people to know what's going on in their government and I want them to know what the bigger implications are."
The Attorney General's Office said it had received three complaints about inaudible streaming and expedited its directive so the city could "take action to meet their ongoing obligations under the OMA" in a timely manner.
Deputy City Clerk Linda Farnsworth told the Las Cruces Sun-News that city staff was working on improvements. "Hopefully the audio issues will be resolved here in the next few days, in time for the next meeting," she said.
A public hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Dec. 20 to consider the transfer of a liquor license. Farnsworth said the next meeting after that, and the first to include officers elected in November, was at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 3, 2022.
Lordsburg's incoming mayor, Glenda Greene, said in-person attendance at public meetings would resume after she takes office on New Year's Day. A former city councilor herself, Greene was elected on Nov. 2. Mayor Robert Barrera did not seek another term.
"Transparency is a key focus I would like to address as of Jan. 1," she wrote to the Sun-News. She said the public would be welcomed to the council's Jan. 3 meeting, with masks and physical distancing required.
"I will open the doors for in-person, however, I will be integrating a new audio system for the constituents that may be interested in attending virtually," she wrote, adding that the council would review the state's Open Meetings Act as well as Robert's Rules of Order.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: New Mexico attorney general warns Lordsburg about virtual meetings