Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mesa clerk muzzles free speech

Mesa County Residents and Media Muzzled at County Clerk's Vote Center Task Force "Public Forum."

Webster's defines "forum" as "any public place or medium for open discussion." However, upon arriving at the hearing room, residents walked through a gauntlet of signs warning against passing out flyers or displaying signs or posters. Only the county clerk's staffers and the Task Force Members were allowed to speak during the meeting. Members of the public were limited to quietly writing questions on index cards--no open discussion was allowed. Nobody was allowed to raise their hand with a question unless to signal an intermediary such as an elections staffer or Janice Ward’s former campaign manager, Linda Bowman, to collect the index card and deliver it to the Task Force.

Unable to speak out, the public’s silence before TV news cameras could easily be misinterpreted as agreement or acceptance of the task force recommendation to refer vote centers to the county commissioners.

One written question that was read during the “forum” summed up the sentiments of the public sitting silently in the room. “Since the Task Force is going to recommend Vote Centers to the county commissioners, why did you invite us to this meeting?” Indeed. What was the point of inviting the public to the meeting when the recommendation evidently would have been made with or without an audience? Perhaps the point was to drive home the nail in the coffin of free speech. In that room, the public and the press were denied a voice; only elected officials and their intermediaries were allowed to express their point of view. Though the press and public were present, they were denied the opportunity to participate.

Even the press got the "keep your distance" message and did not attempt to ask verbal questions. The result was a lecture to the public that ensured the clerk's absolute control over the content of questions aired before the press or news media. Moreover, the "forum" studiously avoided discussion of the reasons the vote center concept was rejected in El Paso County. Oddly, the county clerk herself was out of view behind the podium and was therefore nearly invisible at the proceedings. The result was a dialog limited to the Vote Center Task Force and the elections staff—witnessed by both press and public who were reduced to mere props on a carefully set stage. Presence is not participation. Nor is silence the same as acceptance or agreement.

Still unanswered is the question of whether the meeting was recorded.

Vote Center Task Force or Re-election Campaign?

The El Paso County Clerk & Recorder’s office established a Vote Center Task Force made up of volunteer citizens, representatives of several special districts, two major political parties, neighborhood organizations and El Paso County Election Staff members. ALL of their task force meetings were open to the public, and meeting dates made public.

In contrast, Mesa County citizens can be forgiven for wondering where they were when the call was made for volunteers to serve on the Vote Center Task Force. Mesa County Clerk Janice Ward selected the task force and included at least one of her campaign staffers: Linda Bowman was Ward's campaign manager. Interestingly, Ward’s campaign photo was also used on the county brochure, “Vote Center FAQs,” distributed at the Task Force “forum.” The photo also appears on Ms. Ward’s area of the county website.

Cindy L. Espinoza
264 East Lynwood Street
Grand Junction CO 81503
TEL/FAX 970-245-1196 or 866-865-5780