Editorial: No danger evident, no reason to ban taxpayer from PRC

It was encouraging this week to see that most of New Mexico's Public Regulation Commission disagreed with its chairman, Pat Lyons of Clovis, who wanted to ban a man from attending and speaking to the group.

Martin de la Garza often gives rambling, long-winded, accusatory testimony at PRC meetings.

He was fired in 2009 for accepting $5,000 from the owner of a water utility the PRC regulates. Rightfully so, the agency rejected de la Garza's hard-to-swallow claim he was merely doing a favor for the owner and not taking a bribe, and that he had delivered the money to a Juarez, Mexico, merchant. Other issues were involved in that firing decision too.

Since then, the former employee plants himself in the meeting room nearly all the time and gives testimony that board members find pointless and confusing. He also rants on and on about individuals and declares the group corrupt.

On Tuesday, Lyons urged the group to seek a temporary restraining order from the courts after a May 8 tussle between himself and de la Garza. At that meeting, de la Garza walked through a swinging gate and sat down before the commissioners' table. Four times he ignored Lyons' request to return to the area where the public sits. When the 49-year-old man did not return, Lyons, 58, grabbed his shoulders and shoved him. Later, he said: "We don't have a sergeant at arms or any security. As the chairman, I was in fear for the safety of the other commissioners."

How safety is a real concern is not clear. Lyons admitted in a phone call to this newspaper on Thursday that de la Garza has neither uttered a threat there nor been reported to have said anything like it to anyone else, anywhere else. And he never has brandished or even brought a weapon to a meeting.

That a person is out of control of his or her mouth and where they walk is no doubt irritating and unsettling. But so far the facts say de la Garza is mostly a meandering, loud-mouthed citizen.

A security person could — and with de la Garza's history of being fired by the agency and his verbal attacks on members — should have been at earlier meetings, we believe. They could easily have stopped the trip through the gate.

The unfocused testimony is another matter, but PRC policies were recently amended to limit the time someone can speak to 15 minutes and not to attack the members by name.

Lyons said he does agree with the board stance not to try and gag a taxpayer since, at Thursday's meeting, de la Garza was far more polite, stayed outside the gate, only talked 30 minutes (over the policy but at least of shorter duration). And he refrained from name-calling the board.

Those adjustments by de la Garza were what he really wanted, Lyons declared.

We're glad Pat Lyons is glad, seriously. But more importantly, we're glad Martin de la Garza is behaving himself and is still able to testify to the PRC — even if it doesn't make sense or annoys commissioners.

This recent ban attempt is not the first one the PRC has tried to implement against de la Garza. In 2010 the PRC tried that but the former employee beat them to the punch and sued the PRC. The PRC lost when a state district judge ruled those actions were illegal.

Lyons declared free speech is not the issue, safety is. He is wrong and will remain so if or until there is proof, not supposition, of a safety issue

Just because a speaker annoys officials with comments they deem confusing or pointless is not grounds for regulatory duct tape across the mouth.

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