Six members leave citizens committee meeting after closure retained

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson Curry County Manager Lance Pyle discusses the Open Meetings Act resolution the county commission signs during a citizen’s courthouse committee meeting Thursday at the county courthouse. Pyle said the resolution does not require committee meetings to be open to the public.

Kevin Wilson

The Curry County Citizens Courthouse Committee decided on closed meetings. As a result, it got a lot smaller.

The committee was nearly cut in half Thursday after six members left a meeting, the result of a dispute about whether meetings should be open to the media.

Committee members invited the media to attend the committee’s second meeting at the Curry County Courthouse. Non-members were soon asked to leave by county officials, who reiterated county commission concerns about the need for closed meetings.

Along with the citizens jail committee, the courthouse committee was created in response to an overwhelming voter rejection of $33 million in tax increases to fund improvements to the courthouse and Curry County Adult Detention Center.

The committees were formed to study solutions and make recommendations to the county commission. But members who left didn’t see how that could be achieved behind closed doors.

“I feel like a lot of the problem they had passing this bond issue, (in addition to) being so extravagant and expensive, is that I don’t feel like people knew what was going on,” said Paul Barnes, a former county commissioner who left the meeting shortly after media representatives were asked to leave. “The worst thing you can do is try to hide something.”

Joining Barnes were George Krattiger, Henry Bruner, Ben McDaniel, Dr. James Moss and Doug Reid.

McDaniel and Bruner could not be reached for comment, but the other four had concerns county officials would push the committee toward pre-determined recommendations, then use the committee as insulation from public scrutiny.

Krattiger, who also left the jail committee, said he was OK with meetings being closed to the general public because citizens had their chance to apply for the committee. But he wanted the media invited so ideas could be disseminated to the public, and said nothing in the committee’s mission statement required meetings be closed.

County Manager Lance Pyle, who oversees both committees as a non-voting member, said that wasn’t the case.

“The commission signs an open meetings resolution every year,” Pyle said. “In the resolution, there’s a paragraph noting that all of our committee meetings are not public.”

A call placed to Pyle following the meeting was not immediately returned.

In their meeting earlier Thursday, commissioners cited potential intimidation of members with media and non-members in attendance, and a desire to be the first body that receives information from a committee it created for wanting closed meetings.

Moss felt the opposite — that closed meetings would be intimidating to a public that wanted to understand what solutions were available.

“The perception of what we were going to try to do there without the media just wasn’t going to be good,” Moss said. “I’ve lived here since I was 12 years old. We felt like we knew the population around here fairly well, and we felt like we could get a small bond issue passed, not this grandiose scheme they had.

“If they weren’t going to let us do it ourselves, there was no reason to serve on the committee.”

County Clerk Coni Jo Lyman said the committee was given a point of clarification from the commission to keep meetings closed to the public, and only a commission vote would change those instructions.

Remaining committee members are Gloria Wicker, Marcy Anaya, Richard Rowley, David Briseno, Steve Boyd, Sistar Gloria Yancy and Mary Hernandez.

Wicker said while she stayed on the committee, she understood why others departed.

“I hated to see it happen,” Wicker said. “I’ve served on lots of committees, as a commissioner, and later on I worked at the railroad and I served on the union.

“This committee, I said I would not leave it.”

Anaya didn’t take a position on the matter during the meeting, but felt the committee could abide for the duration of the meeting and work with the commission to change the format afterward if needed.

The committee is required to deliver findings and recommendations to the commission March 15. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 27.