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Leeser defends free speech for PSB members - El Paso Inc.: Local News

Leeser defends free speech for PSB members

Board’s communications policy may be short-lived

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Posted: Sunday, December 8, 2013 6:00 pm

If Mayor Oscar Leeser has his way, the El Paso Public Service Board will tear up the proposed communications policy it has wrestled with for the past two months.

A four-member committee of PSB members met last week to hash out their significant differences over how much freedom board members should have to speak publicly. They came up with a proposed policy that the full PSB will consider this Wednesday.

What may appear to have been a minor policy squabble was actually a significant skirmish over an attempt to stop members of the city’s most powerful appointed board from talking to the public and the news media.

The PBS operated without a communications policy until 2011, when former chair Ed Escudero imposed a restrictive policy that was never voted on or enforced.

It was revived for discussion in October in an effort to quiet the PSB’s most outspoken member, Rick Bonart.

Bonart has had a big hand in recharting the water utility’s direction in nearly four years on the board while stirring up one public controversy after another.

Board member Katherine Brennand, a frequent Bonart ally, called him “the most important person on the board” because of the ideas he brings, but she said she doesn’t approve of his methods.

As a member of the committee, however, Bonart won the day last Monday by pushing through revisions to the policy that would guarantee the free speech rights of PSB members.

While Bonart did the pushing, it was Leeser who did the persuading by politely yet firmly taking on board chairman Richard Schoephoerster and making it clear that he didn’t support the restrictive policy Schoephoerster wants to install.

As the city’s mayor, Leeser has a seat on the seven-member board.

The policy proposed by Schoephoerster and John Balliew, CEO and president of the El Paso Water Utilities, designated them and Christina Montoya, the utility’s vice president for communications, as the utility’s official spokespersons on all matters of media attention and public interest.

Free to speak since the PSB’s creation in 1952, board members would have to refer news media questions to Montoya or Schoephoerster.

Board members would only be allowed to express their views during PSB meetings.

“It says ‘only in open meetings,’ and that’s a part I don’t like,” Leeser said. “I think that based on the First Amendment that as a board member, we do have the right to communicate with the media at any time.”

When Brennand said board members shouldn’t offer their opinions on matters they aren’t fully informed on because they haven’t been discussed by the board, Leeser disagreed again.

They should be able to express their opinions anytime, Leeser said, adding if they don’t know enough to address an issue, they should refer questions to Montoya.

He said he didn’t object to “encouraging” board members to refer public and media inquiries to Balliew, Schoephoerster or Montoya, and that is how the proposed policy now reads.

But Leeser noted that if the changes Bonart proposed are approved, things would effectively stay the way they have been for decades and the board should probably do away with the communications policy completely.

From the audience, Lisa Turner warned the committee not to go along with a restrictive policy because approving it would just lead the public to question the board’s motives.

“If somebody wants to say something before or after the board meeting, you don’t have the right to stop them,” she said.

But Ray Mancera, a former member and chairman of the City Plan Commission, passionately urged the board to approve a policy that would restrict members from speaking in public about the utility.

“The only people that have the privilege of speaking their minds are elected officials,” Mancera said. “You are board members, and you don’t have that privilege. If you want to have a greater authority, run for office.

“You have to understand that the chair is the only one that speaks to the media. If you’re just a member, you walk away and go back to your normal lives.”

When Mancera finished, Schoephoerster nodded and said, “Thank you for the comment. I couldn’t agree with you more.”

The board went on to recommend a policy that contained Bonart’s three main requests. The first gives board members the liberty to express their views. The second gives the public the right to address items before the board at meetings. Previously, allowing public comment on agenda items was the chair’s decision.

Bonart’s third request was the addition of a line in the policy that reads, “Board members are representatives of the public, ratepayers, and the utility and have every right to express their individual views to the community or the media.”

After the meeting, Leeser said, “You heard me say that at the end of the day we probably will go ahead and tear it up and let people have their opinion.”

Asked if he’ll propose that to the PSB on Wednesday, Leeser said, “Yeah.”

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Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

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