Casper City Council informally turned down a request to let council chambers be used for candidate debates during a work session Tuesday.

While some of the nine council members were sympathetic to the request from former council member Keith Goodenough at last week's regular meeting, they agreed with the reasoning from City Attorney Bill Luben.

"Once you open that door for a limited public forum to be a public forum, all bets are off," Luben said.

Last week, Goodenough asked council to consider granting the use of council chambers for debates for candidates for public office so the public can become better educated about the political process.

The council chambers is the only place in Casper with live public television access, live internet and archived internet, Goodenough said during the public comment period.

Limiting participation to candidates who have filed for public office would avoid problems with others demanding access, he said. "That would be small enough group that the neo-Nazis and the neo-hippies and all the other groups aren't going to be clamoring to use the chambers."

Whatever cost the city would incur would be minimal and the public would benefit, Goodenough said.

Goodenough will work with former elected officials to craft a format for a debate, he said.

Goodenough could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

At Tuesday's work session, Luben said the city council a couple of years ago stopped allowing the League of Women Voters to hold candidate forums in chambers.

Luben and Assistant City Attorney Wallace Trembath outlined the legal reasons why, drawing on Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts' explanation of public places and free speech:

  • A public forum is a place like a sidewalk where people are free to speak.
  • A nonpublic forum prohibits free expression. Most of City Hall is a nonpublic forum. People can't conduct protests in city offices, for example.
  • A limited public forum is created for a specific public purpose. Council chambers is a limited public forum for the purpose of conducting city business.

City council has the right to set those limits, Trembath said.

If it doesn't, it runs the risk of sliding from a limited public forum to an uncontrolled public forum, he said.

Allowing some groups but banning others will lead to discrimination charges, and courts have consistently ruled governments cannot play favorites, Trembath said.

Not only that, Luben said if a group successfully sues in federal court, the city must pay the bill for the winning side's attorneys.

However, Mayor Daniel Sandoval said there could be an emotional reaction in that taxpayers could say they've paid for the building and the technology and they should be allowed to use it.

Several council members expressed their frustration with the legal problems, but agreed the current system is best.

"I agree with the law, but I don't like it," Ray Pacheco said.