Lawyers occupy five of six seats on Santa Fe’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board. All that legal talent gives the panel, shall we say, a certain lack of diversity.

It also brings about a predictable pattern of behavior. Lawyers want to retreat to closed-door meetings when reviewing complaints about politicians.

Their practice is permissible but unnecessary. Board members would better serve the city’s residents if they discussed and debated political cases in public — a system that would help dispel criticisms of favoritism or whitewashes.

Paul Biderman, an attorney and member of the ethics board for the last 10 years, said he cannot remember the panel ever meeting in public while deliberating on a complaint about a politician’s campaign tactics. He and the rest of the board like it that way.

“We want to be able to talk candidly, not worry about whether an individual feels we are favoring one side,” Biderman said.

If he and other members cannot speak candidly in public about evidence and arguments they just heard in the open portion of a meeting, what are they doing on the board? They know they will disappoint or anger the losing side each time they announce a decision on allegations of campaign misconduct.

The mayor appoints members of the ethics board, and the City Council confirms them.

These same politicians typically are the ones involved in complaints of campaign misdeeds.

That in itself is a good reason for board members to stop discussing complaints in private. The more open the board is, the less likely that claims of cronyism will occur.

More openness by the board might also deter frivolous campaign complaints, such as one recently made by Mayor Alan Webber. Board members last week dismissed Webber’s allegations that political rival JoAnne Vigil Coppler had illegally coordinated her campaign with groups criticizing Webber. There was no evidence that Vigil Coppler ever contacted any of the groups.

Board members discussed the case in executive session before announcing their decision in public.

Justin Miller, a lawyer and chairman of the board, said the panel operates in a fashion similar to a judicial body. For instance, the state Supreme Court occasionally hears arguments in public. Then the five justices discuss the case privately before making their decision public.

State Rep. Tara Lujan, the only ethics board member who’s not a lawyer, views the panel’s use of closed meetings much like Miller and Biderman do. Lujan said executive sessions allow members “to have conversations and have an understanding of ideas.”

They can do so in the open, and they would be better public servants for it.

In some ways, the board might be restricted by law or custom. Though policing ethics seems to be part of the panel’s title, it’s not that simple.

Most board members rejected mayoral candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson’s complaint against Webber for splashing his campaign logo atop a taxpayer-funded event, then distributing his flyer in an email blast.

Three members voted to dismiss the complaint on grounds that Martinez Johnson did not specify any city code violation. The ethics of Webber promoting his reelection campaign through a publicly funded event should have been the key point. Only Lujan and Biderman saw it that way.

The Ethics and Campaign Review Board is supposed to have seven members. One seat is vacant. Under the ordinance that established the panel, four members must be licensed attorneys.

That leaves little room for people who see the world differently from the bar association’s nominees. Even though the board is not at full strength these days, it has more attorneys than are specified by the ordinance.

For any shortcomings the board has, Biderman sees bigger deficiencies with politicians. Three complaints against mayoral candidates already have been filed with the ethics board, and the election is still seven weeks away.

Biderman went public with his concern last week after the board returned from an executive session.

“I’m probably out of line on this, but I’ll say it anyway. Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, and I was very much involved in the world at that time. And I’ll say that I just imagine a world where people run their elections based on their qualifications and their policy positions, and not on attacking each other’s ethics,” Biderman said.

Might that sort of idealism lead to more open meetings and fewer executive sessions by the ethics board?

My bet is it won’t. The jury is still out, but it always deliberates in secret.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(8) comments

Emily Hartigan

Interesting to consider.

Traditionally, the U.S. Congress was mostly lawyers.

Secrecy is a different issue.

Lawyers are not different from other people -- I taught nearly 40 years' worth of lawyers, and they are just human. [Studies have shown that MBA's cheat more.]

The question of transparency is another question, and a very valid one. Stay on point.

Joseph Tafoya

We have lawyers in the state legislature creating laws. We have lawyers as District Attorneys to prosecute or not prosecute those that violate the laws. We have lawyers dressed in black robes Judging those violators. Now we have a board of ethics with the majority being lawyers who are to be overseers of The Ethics and Campaign Review. Now they want to do things in secret? What could go wrong?

Joe Brownrigg

FIRST, we do NOT have an ETHICS commission. There is no ethics principle(s) in use.

This is the pivotal issue, not specific decisions nor the excessive composition of lawyers.

What we have is a tendency to equate "ethics" with "law." It would make life much simpler if the two were interrelated. But they are not.

Public discussions are created with a preamble: "How will what I say be INTERPRETED" by the public? (So it is a good idea to have closed meetings.) But there is a secondary corollary: What does the majority "believe" to be true? (This is not ethics. This is political second-guessing.)

"Ethics" is not a "majority rules" system. Ethics is based on principles, not majority conclusions.

An accurate name for this group (at least in its motivation) is: Legal Ombudsman (or Legal Ombudsperson).

It will be interesting to see how all these things plays out in Edgewood. Take a look at the article in today's edition of "The New Mexican."

Chris Mechels

In 2017 the USA had 1.3 million lawyers, and China had 357 thousand; and the China has about 4 times more people.

We are buried in lawyers, who are busy making mischief, for more lawsuits. And some of the worst are in government, where they seem to be above the law. Who's to charge Malfeasance, for misconduct in government, when the Attorney General is, himself, a law breaker?

We struggle with Covid, in large part because our government is not trusted, as they lie to us. Our Governor is an attorney, and exhibits the professions lack of regard for the truth. One has to be foolish to trust her, or Egolf, or Wirth; all lawyers. So, we were told to compulsively wash our hands, and that face masks were worthless, and then the story changed, when convenient, and now we wear "face coverings", not masks, and don't wash our hands. "Truth" is political, full stop. And these continuing lies are killing us, because trust has broken down. Stop electing lawyers.

John Cook

China has fewer lawyers than the U.S. Which country has greater civil liberties and more individual rights? Do you think that is a coincidence?

Chris Mechels

Milan misses the point. We should have NO attorneys on the Ethics Board, as they are NOT ethical, and they seem to have little use for our Laws.

In my 7 year experience working for police reform at the Law Enforcement Academy Board, Chaired by the Attorney General and with Counsel from the AG office, they have violated the Open Meetings Act, the IPRA public records act, and the NM Rules Act, and appealing to the law has no effect on their behavior.

The NM Commission on Public Records also is dominated by attorneys, Chaired by the State Auditor Brian Colon. Again NO respect for the laws, esp the NM Rules Act and the Open Meeting Act.

Better to put clergy, teachers and students on the Ethics Board. They might actually have some ethics, attorneys seem to have none. A bunch of nihilists, with clever rhetoric, not to seek the truth, but to confound the truth.

Again, we should have NO attorneys on the Ethics Board. We also need to reform the Grand Jury, and throw the DA out of the room, as originally designed. The Grand Jury, dominated by the DA since the 1990s, is now used by the DA for cheap indictments, and should be eliminated, as it only serves to hide the hand of the DA. I'm for restoring the Grand Jury, but attorneys will likely block that.

As the joke goes: "What do you call 10o attorneys at the bottom of the ocean. A good start!". I exempt Susan Boe from this indictment, she's solid.

Richard Reinders

How many legislators are attorneys? Also why not vote in the ethics board positions like they do the school board. It is extremely suspect when the very people that will be judged by the board vote in the board.

Maria Bautista

Exactly, we struggled with A.R.T. exposed bus flaws, but RJ Berry had appointed his cronies to Land Use board, now in hinfsight, Keller is suing contractors, Mr Lemonade.

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