Idea of evening city meetings will go to informal vote as transparency dims during COVID-19 pandemic

by Kathleen Sloan | July 11, 2020
5 min read
Consistent with their campaign promises to make the City more transparent, new Truth or Consequences City Commissioners Amanda Forrister and Randall Aragon said the community should decide whether they hold one evening meeting a month.

Both said they heard from many constituents during their campaigns that one of the two meetings a month should be in the evening so working people can attend.

Aragon suggested the question should be put on the City utility bill, customers checking yes or no boxes to evening meetings, with city staff counting the results of the informal vote.

City Manager Morris Madrid agreed, “That would be the fairest way.”

Mayor Sandra Whitehead resisted the idea of evening meetings.

“We used to have evening meetings and they were very long. Some of us work and we are fresher in the morning,” Whitehead said, and City staff has to be paid overtime to attend.

“If a majority of the citizens want it, then I wouldn’t mind,” Whitehead said, “But if it’s the same six or 10 people who go to meetings, then holding evening meetings is not fair to the public, staff or commissioners.”

Whitehead said people can attend online, but failed to note those too are morning meetings. The City has used the free GoToMeeting application to hold meetings online simultaneously with the physical meeting. The online meetings are not preserved for the public and cannot be watched later.

The COVID-19 pandemic required the City to provide an online-meeting option.

The GoToMeeting audio, probably due to the City’s microphones, is extremely bad. The Sun has observed several people sign off shortly after signing on. The “chat” function allowed attendees to state they couldn’t hear throughout the meetings. The City didn’t improve the audio, but instead disabled the chat function.

People then sent complaints about the audio by email to the City Commission and City Manager Madrid, the Sun being cc’d and adding its own complaint. Those emails remain unanswered.

Whitehead also argued evening meetings aren’t necessary because the public “can visit with us,” but the only contact information for City Commissioners are email addresses. The Sun’s numerous emails to Whitehead, the City Commission and Madrid go unanswered with the rare exception.

The Sun has received dozens of forwarded emails from residents that have also gone unanswered. The City Commission’s and Madrid’s lack of response has been noted on Facebook posts, emails to the Sun and at the podium during public comment.

Lack of response and transparency was the biggest issue voiced by the community during the city-commission election last March, and the ability to get answers or to attend meetings is more difficult now.

Online-meeting attendance before the COVID-19 outbreak—with better audio—used to be available. Citizens could watch the meeting in the evening if that was more convenient. The City broadcast and then archived meetings on YouTube. But the City let its contract with the communications company lapse in January, without informing the public, and that option has not been available for six months and counting.

Why the contract was allowed to lapse, when or if city meetings will be broadcast and archived again, has not been addressed. Several months ago Madrid mentioned he was looking into a new camera system for the Commission Chambers, not informing the City Commission the old one was disabled, and has said nothing since then.

Besides Whitehead, Commissioner Paul Baca also resisted the idea of evening meetings. “If only 100 to 200 people of 6,500 want them that isn’t a majority. We are tired at night.”

But Baca should not minimize 100 to 200 votes. First, the City’s population has been estimated at 5,865 by the U.S. Census since 2018, down from the 2010 census count of 6,475, so he should revise his denominator.

Second, he may want to use the number of people who vote as his measure. About 1,200 people vote during city commission elections at the top end. The city commissioner may want to consider how many voted for him or her as a more personal guide. City Commissioner Brendan Tolley got the most votes—600— in the March election, and 100 people would be 16 percent and 200 people would be 33 percent of his voting public. In the last decade the most votes have gone to Steve Green, with 800 votes. One hundred people would be 12 percent and 200 people would be 25 percent of his voting public.

Madrid also minimized the utility-bill vote before it is held. He wants attendance to determine the decision, not a vote. “The louder few don’t necessarily represent the community, and attendance is a barometer. If there is no difference in attendance, then there is no reason to hold evening meetings.”

Forrister noted the City Commission “already held one evening meeting with no attendance.” She was referring to online attendance, since the evening meeting was held after the public was told they could only attend online. She did not acknowledge The GoToMeeting problems. Computer access, technical comfort with the GoToMeeting app, technical know-how, beyond the audio problem, should also be considered, since 30 percent of the population is over 65.

Forrister will not base her decision on one meeting’s attendance, however. She agreed with Aragon, “We should take a survey and see.”

The City Commission didn’t make a motion or take a vote on the matter. Evening meetings wasn’t on the July 8 agenda, and only agenda items may be acted on, according to the Open Meetings Act. This ensures the public has sufficient notice to attend the meeting and give public comment, if allowed. The three new commission members have been successful in reinstituting public comment at the second meeting of the month, which the prior City Commission disallowed.

It was resident Hans Townsend who brought up the issue of evening meetings. During public comment he said he had to leave work to attend the 9 a.m. meeting, which was difficult and bad for his business. Why had there been only one evening meeting, he asked, and what was the City Commission doing about it?

The City Commission Chambers now allows about 20 people to attend, having removed other seating to keep a six-foot distance. People are required to wear masks, which are available at the door. Townsend and one other member of the public attended. The rest of attendees were City staff, on the agenda, or members of the press.

The City Commission discussed evening meetings under the agenda heading “response to public comment.”

They agreed, informally, to take a vote, via the utility bill, whether to hold evening meetings. When those bills will go out was not discussed.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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