Commissioners should be more forthcoming

Clovis Media Inc.

There’s something seriously wrong with a system that allows Curry County to secretly pay a jail inmate $450,000.

But it happened in December 2010, and we warn everyone it can happen again today if commissioners won’t change their policy not to specify what the topics are of their secret meetings.

The settlement involved inmate Orlando Salas, arrested on conspiracy charges in the 2005 shooting death of a 10-year-old Clovis boy. Salas filed a lawsuit in Albuquerque, county officials finally admitted last week, alleging he was mistreated while awaiting trial in Curry County’s juvenile facility.

County officials, or at least investigators for their insurance carrier, had determined Salas was mistreated.

Commissioner Caleb Chandler said last week he did not want Salas to receive the money, but the decision was made by a board of directors for the county’s insurance provider. Commissioner Wendell Bostwick also said he did not like it but a settlement was the responsible thing to do because jail officials had clearly mistreated the teenage boy.

A jury might well have awarded Salas millions of dollars, he said, and the insurance would only pay $450,000, leaving taxpayers to pay the rest.

No doubt the commissioners were in a tough situation. Curry County jail employees were alleged to have tied Salas to a chair in solitary confinement, deprived him of food and allowed other inmates to urinate on him.

But not to tell the public about the allegations or the settlement for more than a year — especially when you want taxpayers to build a new jail — is at the least ineptitude and, at worst, calculating quietude so you can win a bond issue election.

Which election, by the way, is now just four weeks away.

How do we trust the county’s top elected officials who are seeking the go-ahead to build a $9.3 million jail when they don’t respect voters enough to tell them about this settlement?

The settlement wasn’t found out until an Albuquerque television station discovered it while compiling facts for its statewide story about problems with juvenile facilities mistreating inmates.

Not only did our elected and appointed officials not report the bad news, they obviously put some effort into keeping their secret.

All discussions on the lawsuit were held in “executive session,” which means behind closed doors so nobody else could hear. Since the law does not allow decisions regarding the public’s business to take place in secret, commissioners cleverly declared this to be an insurance decision — not their decision. So nothing was ever discussed about the issue in a public meeting.

“I think the procedure is by not doing anything, we accept the insurance company’s settlement offer,” Bostwick explained.

For years, our newspaper has complained the county does not provide the public enough information about what goes on behind closed doors. Commission agendas state simply they will meet in executive session to discuss “matters pertaining to threatened or pending litigation.” When reporters ask for specific topics, county officials say state law does not require they reveal that information.

Sure, we could take the county to court — it wouldn’t be the first time — to see if their self-serving interpretation is correct. It isn’t our first choice because it would not cost just the newspaper for lawyer fees but the taxpayers too.

Our first choice is for county commissioners to be more open to their constituents by being more specific about their secret-meeting topics. Whether a law exists that would allow secret-meeting topics to be vague may be debatable, but there is no law preventing transparency in government.

As an example, an agenda item that read “Pending litigation regarding Orlando Salas lawsuit” would have given taxpayers notice and opportunity to ask questions or offer input long before the $450,000 settlement decision.

We’ve asked for this clear-cut policy change repeatedly. The answer, repeatedly, has been no. Hopefully, public pressure tied to this latest embarrassment will lead to a different answer the next time.