Taxpayers told secrets must be maintained

By David Stevens

“Dear boss,
“Yes, I understand you’d like to know more about what your employees are doing around here. I imagine you’d like to know more about how your money is being spent. I’m sure you’d like a little insight into our newsroom’s plans for the future.
“But I think my staff is entitled to a little privacy.
“And so I’ve decided to ignore your request for additional information about what we’re doing around here. You don’t need to know.
“But thanks for your interest.”
Somehow I know that letter would not go over well in my place of employment.
And yet it’s exactly the letter Clovis taxpayers received from an attorney who represents Clovis Community College and the city of Clovis on Wednesday.
I complained to the college board of trustees last week about their agenda of Feb. 4. The agenda stated an executive session would be held to discuss limited personnel. That’s the same language routinely used when Clovis’ city commissioners go into executive session, which I’ve also complained about.
Limited personnel might involve anything from hiring a new window washer to firing an employee caught stealing taxpayer funds. A reporter eventually found out the college board called its executive session to discuss the president’s contract.
I think the taxpayers — who are the bosses at CCC, the city of Clovis and all other public entities — deserve a little more information than “we’re going to have a secret meeting to talk about limited personnel.”
I even have a letter from the state’s attorney general’s office, which agrees with my position. That’s from about two years ago when I complained to Curry County officials about similar language on their meeting agendas.
“In this case,” I wrote to the CCC board last week, “I respectfully suggest the motion to enter executive session should have read ‘… to discuss personnel matters involving the contract of CCC President Beverlee McClure.’ Such a statement would provide the public with a better idea about the topic to be discussed.”
But Dave Richards, the attorney representing the college — and the city — disagrees.
“The language suggested in your letter,” Richards’ response letter reads in part, “would certainly fulfill the requirement (of the state’s Open Meetings Act), but there does not appear to be a requirement that the specific employee be identified.
“The ‘reasonable specificity’ requirement (of the Act) has created significant debate and must be judged according to the situation, the exception, and the subject to be discussed. The public body must protect the privacy of the employee and, at the same time, meet both the language and the intent of the statute.”
I called Richards on Thursday to make sure his letter meant what I thought it said. It does. He will continue to recommend limited explanations for agenda items related to his clients’ executive sessions.
“The attorney general,” Richards said, “is just another lawyer to me.”
In short, Richards is saying to the bosses, the taxpayers: “I’ve decided to ignore your request for additional information about what we’re doing around here. You don’t need to know.”
I’ll step back now and let Clovis News Journal attorneys and the state’s Foundation for Open Government wrestle over what’s legal.
I know the taxpayers — the bosses — should have information about what’s going on behind the closed doors of public entities.
It’s disappointing to know there are public officials who seem willing to fight over that issue.
We’ll keep you posted.

David Stevens is editor for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. He can be contacted at 1-800-819-9925. His e-mail address is:
david_stevens@link.freedom.com