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Task Force Gets “Safe Space”

Meetings of the Santa Fe Community Health and Safety Task Force, charged with recommending police reforms, will now be closed to public

Meetings of a city task force charged with creating recommendations for how the police department should address misconduct and racism will now be held behind closed doors, the Santa Fe City Council decided Wednesday.

It's the only time a body convened by city government has requested to conduct its business in private in at least ten years, and for some councilors, it raised ethical concerns about transparency.

"I'm really torn about how we come up with something that allows people some safety, but also allows us to operate in a transparent manner," Councilor Signe Lindell said Wednesday.

For others, the request emphasizes the extreme sensitivity of the topic and the depth of the problem the task force is trying to address. Task force co-chairs Councilors Renee Villarreal and Chris Rivera said closing the meetings to the public would create a "safe space" for task force members to speak openly about experiences of racism and violence.

The task force was proposed in August last year amid national protests and calls for police reform after the killings of several Black people at the hands of police officers and the systemic failure of the courts to hold officers responsible for their actions. The group held its first meeting at the end of November.

But it has accomplished little since then.

At Wednesday's City Council meeting, Villarreal said the task force, which is predominantly made up of women and people of color, has been unable to fulfill its most basic duties because members feel uncomfortable sharing personal details that inform their perspective on community health and safety and law enforcement in a public atmosphere where anyone could be watching.

Villarreal said the situation has improved slightly since the city hired a professional facilitator to help mediate the meetings, but not enough to begin drafting recommendations for the governing body. She said members have very different experiences with law enforcement and opinions about what needs to change. Two members have already quit.

"We haven't even been able to work through some of the topics because people don't feel safe sharing what has been their experience or what they would like to take on with the task force," Villarreal said, adding that the tensions of the current political climate have only made things worse.

"The fact that white supremacy is right in our face, that also brings a level of fear," she said, referring to the Jan. 6 riots at the US Capitol.

Councilors JoAnne Vigil Coppler, Mike Garcia, and Jamie Cassutt Sanchez also expressed sympathy with the task force members' request for privacy.

Without giving people the opportunity to speak confidentially about their experiences of trauma, said Vigil Coppler, "you're only going to get safe stories that may not get at the root of the issues."

The state Open Meetings Act only applies to policymaking bodies such as city councils or the Legislature, and does not apply to advisory bodies such as the Community Health and Safety Task Force whose power is limited to making policy recommendations. However,  in 2009 Santa Fe passed a resolution requiring all committees and task forces to also comply with the act in an effort to enhance the transparency of local government.

For Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, maintaining transparency is a matter of public trust.

"I fear that we are going to lose public understanding," she said.

Romero-Wirth introduced an amendment that would allow focus groups and community meetings to be held in private while requiring that the task force meetings themselves be kept open to the public. She said this would allow members to share their stories in a private setting while also making sure the public has the chance to follow the process and reasoning behind the final recommendations.

Her proposed amendment failed with three councilors voting in favor and six voting against it. The council then chose to tack on parts of Romero-Wirth's amendment creating public engagement groups and allocating more funding towards the task force activities to the original resolution.

The resolution to close the meetings to the public and extend the time frame of the task force until the end of the year passed on a nearly unanimous vote. Only Romero-Wirth voted no.

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