Alamogordo, N.M., Heads Back to Court Over Mayor’s Facebook Page

After the mayor refused to turn over all of the interactions she had on Facebook, a resident sued her for what she claimed was a denial to share public information: The matter will be decided in court.

by Tara Melton, Alamogordo Daily News, N.M. / June 2, 2016

(TNS) -- The city of Alamogordo will head back to court after failing to agree on the proposed monetary settlement over former Mayor Susie Galea's Facebook page.

In April, Galea and the city of Alamogordo were found in violation of New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act after 12th Judicial District Judge Jerry H. Ritter Jr. ruled that Galea's Facebook page was subject to inspection requests under the state's records act. According to 12th Judicial District records, Wendy Irby filed a public records request with the city of Alamogordo to inspect a Facebook page established by Galea, who was Mayor of Alamogordo at the time, and the city denied her request.

Ritter concluded that Irby is entitled to a summary judgement including a finding that the Mayor's Facebook page is a public document subject to inspection and disclosure, and that the city's refusal of Irby's request is wrongful. The summary judgement also granted Irby an award of taxable costs and reasonable attorney fees.

Irby's attorney, Blair Dunn, submitted a settlement proposal to the City of Alamogordo on May 17. The proposal indicated the cost of representing Irby is $41,115.25 and proposed damages amount to $20,000.

"When it comes to denying someone their First Amendment rights to petition the government or to engage in speech, that's a tough thing to put a dollar amount on," Dunn said. "Ms. Irby would've liked to petition her government regarding what was in the Facebook page of the Mayor and she would've liked to be able to speak about it, but they denied her the ability to engage in speech by denying her access to those records."

In Dunn's proposed settlement to the City, he gave recent examples of restricting First Amendment rights in Roswell and Albuquerque. Dunn said in 2014, the city of Roswell settled the First Amendment claims of two individuals for $97,000 for restricting their First Amendment right to preach on public sidewalks. Dunn also said in 2013, the city of Albuquerque settled a case involving the prohibiting of public speech at a police oversight meeting of four individuals by paying each of them $14,000.

City Attorney Stephen Thies met with commissioners in executive session on May 24 to discuss the settlement and responded to Dunn on May 25 that the City could not agree to the proposed settlement terms.

"The $20,000 was honestly, as is my firm's bill, negotiable," Dunn said. "I'm not in this to break the City or do anything like that and neither is Ms. Irby. We just want to be fairly compensated and all they had to do was make a counteroffer. Instead of making a counteroffer and saying we'll pay you so much on fees and so much for the infringement on speech and getting the City out cheaper, they said no we're going to fight this out so let's go to trial."

Thies, who said he shouldn't comment on the case, said they will now go back to court and a judge will make the determination on the settlement. Thies said the City has not turned over Galea's Facebook page and are waiting on the judge to sign the order before they do so.

"I believe the order provided that we had a certain amount of days in which to turn the contents over," Thies said. "There's a provision where if we want to submit it to the judge, we have that ability to submit the contents of the page to him and he'll review the contents and then make a decision on if there's any private information that should be withheld."

Thies said he would like to move on and address other issues but if the City can't agree on the amount of attorney's fees and damages, they are not going to just write a check.

"We want our governments to be transparent," Dunn said. "When they won't or they don't and we have to file a lawsuit like this, don't make it worse by after you lose continuing to waste more money continuing to fight when you screwed up. I think that's the biggest problem with what the city of Alamogordo is doing is instead of owning they were wrong, they want to continue to fight forward and don't have any regard for the fact that they violated the law and should pay for it."

©2016 the Alamogordo Daily News (Alamogordo, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.