NM redistricting panel debates ex parte communications

Jul. 3—SANTA FE — The newly formed Citizen Redistricting Committee rejected a proposed rule Friday that would have required its members to disclose private conversations about proposed district maps.

The chairman of the committee, retired Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez, had proposed the prohibition on undisclosed ex parte communications as part of the group's new rules of procedures.

But it drew criticism from conservative activists and left-leaning community groups alike, with concerns raised about whether it would discourage participation from people who can't make it to a formal public meeting to testify.

Committee member Lisa Curtis, an attorney and former Democratic state senator, said the rule went well beyond what had been outlined in the state law establishing the committee.

Furthermore, she said, it isn't appropriate to treat the group's work as a judicial proceeding.

"I want to have an open door policy with the public," she said.

Only one committee member — State Demographer Robert Rhatigan, an independent — joined Chávez in support of the restriction. He and Chávez said the rule was intended as a transparency measure.

"It's a matter of just being as open as possible with the communities," Chávez said.

The proposed rule would have prohibited committee members from engaging in private communication with someone outside the committee about a proposed district plan or part of a plan. If such a communication happened, it would have to be reported to the chairman and disclosed at the next public meeting.

Chávez's suggested rules of procedures were adopted, but without the ex parte provision.

The debate surfaced Friday in the committee's first public meeting.

The group has faced criticism for a lack geographic and cultural diversity among its seven members — a point acknowledged by committee members Friday and touched on during extensive public comment.

The committee nonetheless is pushing forward with its work, including plans to hold a series of public hearings around the state this year. The group is required by law to propose three sets of maps for congressional and legislative districts, based on 2020 census data.

Its proposals will be taken up in a special session late this year by legislators, who will be free to pick one of the suggested maps or amend them.

Also Friday, the redistricting committee:

— Adopted an agreement with the Redistricting Lab at Tufts University to establish an online portal to accept public comment and allow people to build and submit their own maps.

— Directed staff to extend the application deadline by one week for New Mexico attorneys who want to apply to represent the committee.