Attorney general unable to determine open meeting violation

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

The Attorney General’s Office says it was unable to determine if three Curry County commissioners held an illegal meeting in November, but admonished commissioners to exercise caution when gathering in a quorum, according to an opinion issued Friday.

In February, the Clovis News Journal filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, requesting an investigation into what it believed was a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

“Based on the information available to us at this time, we are unable to conclude that the Commission violated the OMA (Open Meetings Act), as alleged,” the letter states.

“Nevertheless … the commission needs to be mindful of OMA’s extensive reach and strive to avoid inadvertent violations when a quorum of its members meets outside of a public meeting.”

The complaint stems from the Nov. 17 discovery of Commissioners Wendell Bostwick, Caleb Chandler and Dan Stoddard having lunch with Eastern Plains Council of Governments Interim Director Richard Arguello at Eddy’s Subs & More on Main Street.file:///Users/cnjedit3/Desktop/OrdersByPhotog.csv

The CNJ alleged in the complaint the meeting was an illegal quorum because the group was discussing county business based on statements Arguello made that he was acquainting the group with his agency and the services it provides.

The paper also alleged a quorum of commissioners met illegally on Feb. 19, 2009, to discuss county business.

Bostwick said he has not seen the opinion so can’t address it specifically. He said no discussions of county business took place while the quorum was together.

“In my mind, I just don’t think we were in violation,” he said.

“We were not discussing county business; we’re not even going to go down that road, It’s too easy to have a public meeting … if we wanted to have a private meeting, we certainly wouldn’t go sit down by a cash register and have a private meeting.”

Bostwick said there are times when a quorum of commissioners end up at the same events and functions and though they try to notify the media when they know in advance, “In a small community, you’re subject to run into people at different times and we know that.”

Deputy AG Elizabeth Glenn addressed her findings to Curry County Attorney Stephen Doerr.

“Based on your description,” she wrote Doerr, “it appears that public business may have been discussed during both lunch meetings, but you assert that the discussions did not occur among a quorum or, in the case of the November 17 meeting with Mr. Arguello, consisted of a one-way conversation.”

Clovis News Journal Editor David Stevens said the AG’s opinion is a welcome reminder that officials need to discuss public business in public.

“I certainly don’t know if the quorum of commissioners just listened to Mr. Arguello as they claim or whether they responded to what they heard during that private lunch,” he said.

“If you’re really representing the public, why would you want to try to avoid the law on a technicality like that? Hopefully, they got the message and this won’t be a problem in the future.”

Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Sarah Welsh wrote in an e-mail that the AG’s opinion should send Curry County commissioners “a stern warning.”

“It’s a very fine line to draw between a ‘one-way’ transmission of information and a ‘discussion’ among a quorum,” she wrote.

Efforts to reach Stoddard and Chandler were unsuccessful.