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Publisher's journal: DOJ: Chancellor contract 'not valid'

January’s contract renewal for Eastern New Mexico University Chancellor James Johnston is “not valid.” That’s according to the Government Counsel and Accountability Division of the New Mexico Department of Justice.

The DOJ issued a letter to ENMU regents Friday in response to complaints from The Eastern New Mexico News and New Mexico Foundation of Open Government. The complaint was that regents violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when they renewed Johnston’s contract on Jan. 17.

Regents met in Santa Fe with an agenda that included an executive session in which they planned to discuss information “pertaining to the Presidential contract renewal.”

Two days later, the university announced Johnston had been awarded a contract extension through Jan. 1, 2028. But a public vote on the chancellor’s contract was never taken, a violation of the OMA.

“(T)he Board of Regents must cure this matter as soon as practical by approving these final actions in an open public meeting,” read the letter from Billy Jimenez, assistant attorney general.

ENMU on Friday said it will “respond appropriately after review.”

Spokesman John Houser addressed concerns about the regents’ actions at the time The News and FOG lodged the formal complaints.

“I think there is some confusion here,” he said in January. “There was no vote taken. The Board conducted a personnel evaluation, and the board and president were mutually interested in extending the president’s contract.”

Melanie Majors, executive director of FOG, said there was no reason for confusion.

“(T)he Open Meetings Act clearly states that no, NO action may take place in executive session,” she wrote in an email in response to regents’ actions. “The item may be discussed, but the actual vote must, MUST be made in public – no exceptions. This is a violation, a definite violation.”

DOJ, in its letter to regents agreed with The News and FOG.

“Certain public business may be discussed in closed session settings, but final actions must be taken in an open meeting,” Jimenez wrote.

“The minutes from the Board of Regents meeting indicate the Board of Regents took an invalid action by voting to approve the President’s contract during a closed executive session. The voting … (was) required to be held during the open portion of the Board of Regents meeting.”

Documents obtained by The News after the Jan. 17 meeting show Johnston received a $17,045 annual pay increase, opportunity for a $50,000 retention bonus, and $4,800 more annually (from $600 monthly to $1,000 monthly) for a car allowance.

All of that is now invalid, according to Jimenez’s letter.

The DOJ letter does not address repercussions if ENMU fails to address violations by holding another meeting, but the Attorney General’s Office has the authority to fine each regent up to $500 if they knowingly violate the law.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Johnston will have to return any money he received from the pay raise now that DOJ has said that contract is invalid.

I hope this sends a message to the university and to every public entity in New Mexico that the state’s sunshine laws are not just good ideas. You actually have to conduct the public’s business in public.

I hope ENMU’s trustees will correct this obvious error by simply holding a public vote. It’s not just the law. It’s the responsible thing to do.

David Stevens is editor and publisher of Clovis Media Inc. Email him at:

[email protected]

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