I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
ABQ charter panel punts on regulating nonprofits
ALBUQUERQUE — A panel tasked with recommending changes to Albuquerque’s charter sent city councilors a message Thursday night: If you want to change how the city regulates election-year activity, do it yourself.
That decision came after nearly two hours of debate by the Albuquerque Charter Review Task Force and the recognition that there weren’t enough votes to pass or kill a proposal to restrict election-year activity by nonprofits.
By a 8-4 vote, the task force drafted a motion telling the city council that it had struggled with the issue and recommended that the council discuss it further.
“It’s an important issue,” said task force member and former city councilor Vickie Perea.
The proposed amendment would have required certain entities to register as measure finance committees — the city’s version of a political action committee — if they communicated anything in support or opposition to a candidate in the four months leading up to a city election. All donors to measure finance committees must be disclosed.
Unlike most changes to the city charter, which must go to the voters for approval, the city council can still make such a change to Albuquerque’s ethics and elections codes if seven of nine city councilors support the measure, said Albuquerque City Attorney Robert White.
That means the fight over the proposal will likely go to the City Council.
The controversial proposal at Thursday’s public hearing was introduced by task force member Chuck Gara. It was widely viewed as an attempt to restrict activities by nonprofits, although Gara repeatedly denied it.
Usually a lightly attended affair, Thursday’s meeting of the charter review task force was bustling with people as representatives from more than a dozen nonprofits packed a small room on the ninth floor of City Hall to protest the idea Gara had put forth.
Under the proposal, an organization that communicated information interpreted as supportive or critical of a candidate via newspaper, TV, radio, Internet, on a billboard, by direct mail or in a door-to-door canvas within 120 days of an election would trigger the requirement.
At the heart of the issue is registration as a measure finance committee, which would require nonprofits to list donors, something that federal law does not require them to do.
Having to disclose donors could silence many nonprofits for a major part of the year, representatives of several organizations said.
And that would lead to less accountability, said Laurie Weahkee of the SAGE Council. The proposal would, in effect, “shield elected officials four months of the year from critiques from nonprofits. It is our right to know and communicate.”
Added Mary Ellen S. Capek, a consultant to New Mexico nonprofits: “It’s a chilling effect, a financial chilling effect.”
One speaker said the language in the proposal was so sweeping it could affect churches and newspapers. And several speakers said disclosing donors could negatively affect fundraising.
“One donor gave us $100,000 last year but it was on the condition of remaining anonymous,” said Claudia Medina of ENLACE Comunitario, an Albuquerque nonprofit that works on curbing domestic violence with a focus on the city’s immigrant population.
Lynne Anderson, president of National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, was the only audience member to rise in favor of the proposal.
“We have been trying to get big money out of politics,” she said. “Suddenly out of nowhere a nonprofit used that money to influence that election. I would hate to see big money get back in politics by not preventing that kind of politics.”
After hearing from the audience, task force members had a lively debate about whether to support or oppose the proposal.
Many have interpreted Gara’s proposal as the latest salvo in an ongoing war between nonprofits and elected officials that began last summer and peaked in December, when several nonprofits sued the state of New Mexico in federal court.
The suit was filed by several organizations, including the Albuquerque-based Center for Civic Policy – whose director Eli Lee sits on the charter review task force. The suit challenged the state’s order requiring the nonprofits to register as political committees and list their donors.
The state’s order came after mailers were sent out in the months prior to the state’s primary and general elections last year. The mailers targeted several incumbent state lawmakers and told constituents about campaign contributions they had received and how they had voted on certain issues.
“I don’t understand why Steve Gallegos running for governor has to report and someone else doesn’t have to,” said Dan Silva, a member of the task force and an ex-state lawmaker who was targeted by last year’s mailers. Gallegos is a fellow task force member and a former Bernalillo County commissioner.
Silva has been an outspoken critic of the nonprofits that paid for and distributed the mailers. And he, like many of his former colleagues in the Legislature, have said if political candidates have to report contributions, nonprofits should have to disclose their donors.
“Why does an organization have a higher standing?” Silva said of nonprofits.
But UNM law professor Gloria Valencia-Weber said she was surprised the city was seriously entertaining a proposal that likely wouldn’t pass constitutional muster – and would punish nonprofits to boot.
“This business of shutting off everything in 120 days is rather astounding,” she said.
“What is the role of the nonprofits in New Mexico? These are the organizations in a very poor state. … They are the gap fillers for the rest of our life. … Why are we choosing to handicap them?”
Fellow task force member David A. Standridge Jr. said he and Lee don’t agree much on politics, but he saw the danger of trying to restrict nonprofits’ activities.
“What I do dislike more is private citizens reporting to the government,” he said, referring to what he viewed as the sweeping nature of Gara’s proposal — that everyday citizens might have to register with the city.
“We need to limit government. Today the focus is on Eli. Tomorrow it will be a focus on me and my friends.