Things have gotten way out of hand over mayoral forums, the library and a city ethics ordinance.
In 2016, the city passed an ethics ordinance that forbade the use of city facilities for partisan politics or trying to influence an election. It turns out that means candidate forums can’t happen in city libraries, because during forums, candidates try to influence elections by garnering support.
Common Ground Community Trust and Los Rios Neighborhood Association wanted to hold mayoral forums at Loma Colorado Main Library. The form for reserving meeting space didn’t ask about planned activities, so those organizations didn’t mention the forums when they signed up.
City staff members were surprised to learn about the forums after the space was reserved. Since it was about a month before the Common Ground forum, allowing time to find another place, they told that organization it couldn’t hold the forum at the library.
However, the city didn’t know the neighborhood association was planning a forum until a few hours in advance, so that group was allowed to continue as long as only association members attended.
Since then, mayoral candidate Chris Muldrow has filed a lawsuit against the city, saying it impinged on his right to free speech and acted on a double standard.
While we agree campaigning for individual candidates in city facilities isn’t appropriate, non-partisan groups should be allowed to use city buildings to hold forums in which all candidates for the office in question are invited.
That first action is partisan use of taxpayer-funded facilities, not to mention irritating for people accosted by campaigners. The use second is a voluntary activity and provides a balanced platform for hearing from candidates.
We urge the Rio Rancho Governing Body to amend the ordinance to allow non-partisan, inclusive candidate forums at city facilities.
That said, the ordinance is in place now, so the city needs to enforce it until it changes.
Granted, it looks bad that one group was allowed to continue with a forum and one wasn’t.
The city should have widely communicated the ban on candidate forums earlier in the election season and had staff members ask about the use of space when it was being reserved. That would’ve headed problems off at the pass.
However, this is the first election since the ordinance took effect, and it’s not always easy to figure out how to handle new rules. We don’t believe the city infringed on anyone’s rights or deliberately played favorites.
Once city staff learned of the neighborhood association forum, letting it go forward as a private event was more fair than killing it. Common Ground had enough time to change locations so its forum could still happen.
Plus, city employees have started calling people who reserved space to check in advance on whether they were planning forums and communicate the new regulations. The city learned from mistakes, which is meaningful.
We believe a lawsuit is overkill and harmful to taxpayers. We hope Muldrow and the city will work out a solution outside of the courtroom.
This issue should have been resolved without involving the courts, anyway.