Censure – What It Is and What It Is Not

We’ve heard a lot about “censure” lately. Last week, two members of the Bernalillo Board of County Commissioners decided to hold a special meeting of the board with the censure of Commissioner Michael Wiener as the sole agenda item. Failing to achieve a quorum, Commissioners Lujan-Grisham and Hart-Stebbins requested that the item be added to the next regular meeting of the Bernalillo County Commission (BCC).

Commission rules allow any Bernalillo County elected official to add items to the BCC agenda. However, those items must be submitted no later than 8 days prior to the meeting in which the item will be heard. Additional items may be submitted within the 8 day window providing that the BCC votes at the meeting in question to hear the item and that we comply with the provisions of the Open Meetings Act.
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Since the censure motion was added to the May 8th BCC agenda past the 8 day deadline, the Commission must vote to take up the censure motion.

So what is censure? According to the keeper of sometimes accurate and sometimes not-so-accurate information – Wikipedia – censure is:

“the public reprimanding of a public official for inappropriate behavior. When the president is censured, it serves merely as a condemnation and has no direct effect on the validity of presidency, nor are there any other particular legal consequences. Unlike impeachment, censure has no basis in the Constitution or in the rules of the Senate and House of Representatives. It derives from the formal condemnation of either congressional body of their own members.”

 Like Congressional censure, an action of censure taken by the Commission would have no direct effect on the validity of the member in question nor would there any other particular legal consequences.

Commissioner Stebbins argues that censure is the only way for the Commission to express its displeasure with a member. Commissioner Grisham would rather refer to the motion of censure as a vote of “no confidence.” The former doesn’t exist and the latter is best judged by voters of his district.

A censure motion and/or proceeding may be appropriate for a body as large as the United States Congress with its 435 members, but is it really necessary for a 5 member board all of whom have made their views regarding Commissioner Wiener’s pattern of conduct quite clear? I would argue that a censure “proceeding” at the County Commission level is not only unnecessary, but potentially misleading.

What censure is not is a well established well defined disciplinary proceeding. The truth is that the New Mexico State Constitution does not provide the Board of Commissioners with a mechanism to discipline one of its members. In fact, the State Constitution doesn’t seem to even provide for an impeachment process. That is probably because county commissioners are subject to recall but only if the District Court finds probable cause that the commissioner in question is guilty of misfeasance or malfeasance. That’s actually a pretty high standard that makes recall nearly impossible.

On Tuesday, I will vote to accept the “censure” agenda item proposed by Commissioners Stebbins and Grisham. Unlike last Thursday, there will be a quorum present. (Perhaps handling this at a regularly scheduled meeting and avoiding the additional cost of court reporters and govtv videographers would have been a better idea… just sayin).

In any case, there will probably be a considerable amount of public comment. There will be a considerable amount of discussion about the actions past and present of Commissioner Wiener. There will probably be some sort of vote expressing something that is undefined and as a matter of law meaningless.

Sure this will generate a lot more ink and probably be carried by the local newscasts but the message will be identical to the original message that the public has already received and received and received. The only benefit from the continued pursuit of repeated condemnation goes to those who would benefit politically. (Say it isn’t so!)

We’re in a unique position. The voters of District 4 have the immediate opportunity to weigh-in on whether they would like Commissioner Wiener to continue as their county representative. Ironically, early voting starts May 8th, the very day that the BCC will take up the motion of censure. Ultimately, they will decide and there’s not a thing that any other Bernalillo County Commissioner – including myself – can do about it.