Attorney General’s meeting on open government gets mixed response

torrance county, attorney general, open meetings, estanciaA meeting hosted by the Attorney General's office last week in Mountainair on government transparency had nearly 100 people in attendance, a stark contrast to most meetings of governing bodies in the area, which are attended by few. Photo by Leota Harriman.

A meeting last week in Estancia hosted by the Attorney General’s office to talk about government transparency laws had close to 100 in attendance, but left some feeling unsatisfied.

A lengthy presentation by the AG’s office went over rules for when a town council or county commission can close a meeting to the public, rules for disclosure of public documents, and related topics.
That was followed by a question and answer session in which the AG’s representatives took written questions.

A few community members with gripes about local agencies seemed pleased by the forum, while others felt they hadn’t been heard.

About a quarter of those in attendance were from Mountainair, and the mayor of Mountainair, along with the police chief, were at the meeting as well.

Dan Embree is the man who was dragged from a town council meeting in Mountainair earlier this year. He said after the event that he was glad Mountainair is on the AG’s radar.

Embree has taken issue with Mountainair’s town council for the way it goes into closed session, and posed the question, “Are placeholder agenda items legal.”

The law states that the governing body has to state with “reasonable specificity” what it will discuss in closed session, and provides a handful of topics that may be discussed outside the public eye.

Those include personnel issues and litigation, which are frequently cited on agendas for public meetings in the Tricounty without specifying who is involved with the litigation or personnel matter.

Mona Valecenti, assistant attorney general in the Open Government Division said citing “personnel matters” is not sufficient.

“Can a public meeting exclude people when the room was full?” was another question posed to the AG’s panel.
Valecenti said the governing body should make every effort to make sure those who can’t fit into the venue be accommodated, for example by moving to a larger space, or providing audio or video links for those who didn’t fit inside.

Another question appeared to be aimed at the Estancia Valley Solid Waste Authority. It asked whether “the executive committee of a 13-member board” could spend public money to fund an attorney without the knowledge or approval of the full board.

Tania Maestas, the director of the Open Government Division, said, “Specific duties can be delegated” to a committee, but that that executive committee’s meetings “should be open to the public.”

Asked whether a proclamation or discussion item can be added to a governing body’s agenda at the meeting, the answer was yes. Maestas clarified that action items may not be added on the meeting’s date.

Asked by The Independent whether government transparency laws are enforced and “have teeth,” Ben Baker, director of the Criminal Investigations Division, said there had been some “very public referrals” but did not provide any examples as requested.

Another representative, who didn’t identify himself, said compliance is always the goal, and if a public body’s actions can be “cured” by re-doing them, that would satisfy the AG. “It does have teeth. It does work,” he said. “We work to resolve the issue. The goal is to get information to the public.”

Maestas echoed that thought: “We we generally do is seek compliance. … We immediately try to resolve any issues. We advise the public body of the violation and give them 15 days to cure the action.”

Asked if a non-profit organization could make a donation to a public body, in this case 50 chairs, the answer was no, due to the state’s “anti-donation clause” in the constitution.

The Independent asked James Hallinan, spokesman for the AG, whether the high attendance at the meeting raised any red flags for that office. The answer was yes.

Hallinan said there are a large number of calls from Torrance County at the AG’s office.

Another question asked whether someone who had recused himself or herself from proceedings should take part in the discussion. The answer there was no.

Edgewood Mayor Brad Hill said after the meeting that there are some things, like that item, that Edgewood would change as a result of the forum.

Tomás Wolff of Mountainair, said he had posed a question that had not been answered, about what a citizen could do “if officials are not interested in following laws.”

Hallinan said the forum was the first time the AG’s office had held a combination of a town hall and government transparency presentation.