The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By David Stevens
Editor 

Shh... that's an 'executive' secret

 


I send a lot of emails and text messages to public officials, inspiring them to follow the laws intended to make government transparent.

Mostly they don’t respond, or they pay their lawyers $185 an hour to respond on their behalf.

This happened most recently on July 18. I was concerned the city of Clovis and the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority violated state laws by holding secret meetings that week.

The city at least told taxpayers it had planned to hold a secret meeting — they call them “executive sessions” — to discuss “limited personnel.”

The water authority made no such declaration prior to its meeting on July 18. It just decided during its announced meeting it would have a secret meeting.

The New Mexico Open Meetings Act says any “proposed resolution, rule, regulation or formal action” be held only after reasonable notice to the public.

I take that to mean public entities should announce meetings — especially secret meetings in which taxpayers are not allowed to listen in — a few days before they happen. That way, anyone interested can at least show up, see who’s going into and coming out of the secret meetings, see how long they last, see if anybody storms out and shares what’s going on in there, and be there if any action is taken.

But Attorney Dave Richards, who represents both the city and water authority, explained in a 550-word email that I am misreading the law.

“It is important to recognize that the legislature, while stating a general policy favoring disclosure, has recognized that there are instances and topics that are best discussed in private until final action is ready to be taken,” the email reads.

Richards politely explained in his email that the city’s failing to formally adjourn from a public meeting into a private meeting on July 13 was “done in part to benefit the public by not having to sit and wait ...”

He also assured me the water authority followed the letter of the law when it decided to have its unannounced secret meeting, voting to do so during the public meeting.

Since we — taxpayers — pay him $185 an hour to know legal ways to hold secret meetings without anyone finding out in advance, I have to assume he’s right. After all, he works for me. Right?

I think we all agree — media, elected and appointed officials and their lawyers — that action cannot be taken in a secret meeting.

Personnel matters and discussion about land purchases, for example, may be legally discussed in private, but any decisions have to be made in public.

I happen to be of the opinion that taxpayers should be privy to reasons why our elected officials vote the way they do, not just how they vote.

That’s one reason I’m not a big fan of secret meetings. The other reason is that I don’t think public business should be conducted in secret.

Take these recent secret meetings held by the city commission and water authority as examples of something going on that taxpayers should know about.

Water Authority Director Justin Howalt attended both meetings.

While it seems logical he would participate in a water authority secret meeting, it seems odd that he would attend a secret city meeting to talk about personnel, since he’s not employed by the city.

Could it be Howalt is considering a move from the water authority to the city? The city manager’s job is held by Tom Phelps, who has made no secret that he is there on an “interim” basis.

Howalt might make a great city manager. But slipping into the position via secret meetings is not a great way to gain public confidence.

Then again, what do I know. I help pay a guy $185 an hour to keep me from finding out what my elected and appointed officials are doing in their secret meetings.

David Stevens is editor for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at: dstevens@thenews.email

 

Reader Comments
(0)

 
 

Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2017