Curry County good ol’ boys must obey law

Freedom New Mexico

If anyone doubted the good-ol’-boy political system was alive and well in Curry County, that doubt disappeared with the sandwiches on Tuesday at a downtown Clovis restaurant.

Three of the five county commissioners –Wendell Bostwick, Caleb Chandler and Dan Stoddard — met for a private lunch with the executive director of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments. EPCOG’s director said the discussion included county business. That means the meeting was held in violation of state law.

These elected officials went to the private lunch only a few minutes after adjourning from a public meeting just two blocks away. When confronted by the newspaper, commissioners denied talking about county business. But then EPCOG’s Richard Arguello said he met with commissioners so he could acquaint them with his agency and the services it provides.

In layman’s language, the commissioners appear to have been caught in a lie.

A majority, or quorum, of county commissioners discussing county business with the head of another public agency outside a public meeting is clearly public business.

The New Mexico Open Meetings Act explains the reason for “sunshine” laws governing elected officials: “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”

Obviously, the public’s best interest is not served when policymakers adjourn from a public meeting only to reconvene one privately to discuss public issues. Bostwick, Chandler and Stoddard should know better. Why they did it anyway isn’t clear. None had the courtesy to return calls from a News Journal reporter seeking further explanation after Arguello told us what they talked about.

We would be less concerned about this one incident if we didn’t see a trend. To wit:

• On Feb. 19, Curry County paid $78 to cover meals at a non-public meeting that included a quorum of county commissioners — Bostwick, Chandler and Frank Blackburn. Discussion topics at that meeting included the county jail, county roads and local growth management, an obvious violation of state law with the quorum present.

• Commissioner Robert Sandoval said last week that a quorum of county commissioners routinely gathers for lunch and coffee. “It’s not just something that happened today,” he said on Tuesday. “When I have been there, I have made certain that no county business was conducted.” Sandoval said he seldom attends the private meetings because he’s concerned about “the appearance of impropriety.”

For those new to the area, Curry County officials are famous for trying to conduct public business in secret:

• Last year, county officials fought for nearly three months to keep secret a taxpayer-funded report detailing how eight prisoners escaped from the county jail. When finally released last November, we could see why officials didn’t want the report made public: They were embarrassed at references to an “abysmal physical plant design” and a need for “stricter adherence to generally accepted correctional practices, policies and procedures.”

• In 2004, Curry County refused to release public payroll records for county employees. The newspaper filed a lawsuit that time, forcing disclosure. The county had to pay its attorney about $6,000 to argue its case for secrecy.

• In 2002, Curry County refused to release documents related to the death of a jail inmate. It gave up that public information only when the News Journal presented it with a copy of a lawsuit we planned to file.

We may have to go to court again to force the county to comply with state law.

On Friday, CNJ presented Curry County Manager Lance Pyle a formal request seeking information about all private meetings in which a quorum of county officials have discussed public business. We expect commissioners to tell taxpayers when and where they met, who was present and what they talked about. And, of course, we expect these secret, illegal meetings to end immediately.

Secrecy in government has no place in a free society. Help us report violations any time you see three or more county commissioners doing public business in private.

The good ol’ boys of the Curry County Commission are not above the sunshine laws of this state.