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.