By Leota Harriman
Two disparate viewpoints of Mountainair’s town government emerged from interviews with some of the people who were at a town council meeting at which a man was dragged out by police last week. Dan Embree—who said he refused to leave after being told he was out of order by the mayor—went limp in the style of 1960s nonviolent protestors, and was then was dragged out of the meeting by the police chief and one of his officers. Meanwhile the town council and mayor were in executive session, and it was the way they announced that session was the source of Embree’s comments about it.
The Open Meetings Act requires that public business be done in public, and offers specific reasons that a public body may retreat behind closed doors. Those include personnel issues and threatened or pending litigation.
The law says that the public body must state with “reasonable specificity” the reason that they will confer away from the public.
Embree said that he has—at the Aug. 18 meeting and others—questioned the way Mountainair’s town council announces its closed sessions. “There’s a very simple principle, stated very clearly in the law, which is that all public business must be done in public, except for a very few, precisely defined exceptions,” Embree said, adding, “The law gives them a formula, a simple sentence to use. I actually spoke it, or tried to speak it. … It says, ‘I move that we go into executive session to discuss pending litigation in the case of Citizen X versus the town of Mountainair.’ That’s all they have to do.” What the council did instead was invoke pending or threatened litigation, but without any specifics, according to town clerk Suzan Brazil. When they returned from closed session, Embree said the council announced it would write a letter requesting an investigation by the Attorney General against him and others.
Embree and others attending the meeting say Mountainair’s town government is shrouded in secrecy and is hostile to those who disagree with its actions.
Neither Mountainair’s mayor, Chester Riley, nor its Chief of Police, Robert Chung, nor Councilor Barbara Chung were at work last week when this reporter visited the town. But Brazil said Mountainair is following the rules and not hiding anything.
“We’ve been doing the meetings this way for 30 years,” Brazil said. “And all the sudden we have a person who lives here six months out of the year wants to come in and tell us how to run our meetings. That’s his priority, and our priority is to do it the way we want to do it, as long as we’re not breaking any rules, and we’re not. Our meetings are very informal.”
Another man who attended the meeting Aug. 18, Lou Diner, said he has been coming to town councilmeetings for years. “The lack of communication, and the lack of letting people talk at these meetings is horrendous,” he said. “There’s absolutely no way they permit people to talk, especially if you are not in the one-and-a-half-mile radius of the town. I live a little bit outside town, so therefore my input is totally negated.”
Diner said that council members call people names, and that he and others were called “haters,” “disgusting,” “retired busybodies with nothing else to do,” and other epithets by members of the town council.
A woman who was at the meeting Aug. 18, Tamra Hays, said that after the meeting was adjourned, a member of the public was allowed to speak, prompted by councilor Barbara Chung, wife of the police chief. “Because of the timing of that [comment], that’s not going to be in the official record,” she said. “And that bothers me.” She said the man made threats. “ It may have been an empty threat, but it was an ugly threat.”
Tomás Wolff used his cell phone to take video of Embree being dragged out of the meeting. Wolff has been very involved with the art council in town, helping to create mosaic murals, along with work on the new art center and community garden. “I consider Mountainair my town,” Wolff said, even though he lives outside of the town limits.
He said he has been “sneered at” by town officials. “They make all decisions behind closed doors,” he said. “They come to council meetings and don’t say anything except what the police were doing and how many potholes they filled. … You don’t know what [the town’s] priorities are.”
Hays, however, conceded that the reception the group has had by town government “has been better—we have to recognize the little victories.”
Dan Embree’s wife Joan Embree said, “This whole situation is the result of the town not doing what it should have done in the first place. There was an accident. … It’s an embarrassing accident—it involved two city officials and an official building. … If back in January the town had said the police chief and his wife ran into the shelter, and it caused this kind of damage, … and the insurance has covered it, by now nobody would remember there had been an accident or care.”
Part of Dan Embree’s complaint against the town is that when he asked for the police report on a January accident by the police chief—which was made the day after the accident by Robert Chung’s subordinate—that he was not given photos taken at the time.
Chung is now facing a misdemeanor charge of not reporting the accident immediately as required by law after a State Police investigation. Brazil said that was an oversight on her part, because she was sick with pneumonia, and had a high fever and an approaching budget deadline at the time. “Really there’s no excuse,” she said. “I did not deny him those photographs, I was just sick and I was not acting in full capacity to think clearly on any of this stuff.”
The day that Dan Embree was interviewed by this reporter, he had received the digital files of the photographs he had requested; and when the files were requested by The Independent, Brazil emailed them the next day.
Asked why Dan Embree had been told he had to leave the Aug. 18 meeting, Brazil said, “He didn’t have the floor, and he was out of order.”
Brazil said Mountainair has always used very simple agendas and simple language in announcing its intention to enter closed session. And she said that the town council should not have to hear “how awful we were” from Dan Embree or others.
“If they want to come in and they want to go back and ask the mayor to be on the agenda, he finds out why they want to be on the agenda,” Brazil explained. “ But lately everyone that we did let go on the agenda, all they wanted to do is just tell us how awfu l we were. … We’re not awful. Why should you have to open yourself up to that? That’s not public business…. But we’re not operating any way except maybe not the way they want it done, so they’re upset.”
Brazil said the Aug. 18 meeting was an “embarrassment,” adding, “They caused it. I see no reason why this happened and I think they caused it. They think we’re doing something wrong, or doing something they don’t like. … If we were out of compliance [with the Open Meetings Act, Attorney General]
Hector Balderas would be down here sitting in one of our meetings, and I wished he would come, I really do.” She concluded, “I just hate the whole thing that is going on. If we could all work together, live together, get along, pull together—use all this negative energy that they have and make the town be more presentable, a better place without thinking that everybody’s hiding something.”