I believe the editorial Clovis News Journal published Tuesday (“Commissioners should be more forthcoming”) was irresponsible.
It insinuated the county did something improper or was trying to conceal something from the public with regard to the Orlando Salas lawsuit.
I take issue with that allegation.
First, the Salas lawsuit was filed in the federal courts in 2008 and pertained to an incident that allegedly occurred at the Curry County Juvenile Detention Center between September 2005 and May 2006. This was prior to myself and two other commissioners even being elected to serve on the county commission.
Contrary to the CNJ viewpoint, the commission’s action in discussing the proposed settlement was in an executive session that was specifically allowed under law. Section 10-15-1 (H)(7) of the New Mexico statutes, which is part of the Open Meetings Act, allows for “meetings subject to the attorney/client privilege pertaining to threatened or pending litigation in which a public body is or may become a participant.”
Your allegation that the Curry County Commission attempted to disguise or somehow come up with a clever way to address the lawsuit is completely false and without any basis whatsoever.
Through the course of the litigation in the Salas case, the attorneys narrowed down the facts and issues that would be presented to the jury. All of the proceedings and actions in that lawsuit are public record and can be accessed from the federal court clerk’s office.
Once discovery was completed, the parties attempted to negotiate a settlement. Settlement negotiations are encouraged and, in fact, under federal law are mandated.
The attorney appointed by the county’s insurance carrier to represent the county in the Salas case presented his recommendation regarding settling.
As you correctly noted, the county was not forced to accept that settlement. However, it would not be in the best interest of the residents of Curry County for Curry County to have incurred the additional costs and expenses if the settlement had not been reached.
For instance, Dona Ana County has just recently been hit with a $22 million jury verdict in a case involving allegations of improper conduct and assault at their detention facility.
Curry County has never attempted to hide the Salas judgment and would have absolutely no reason to do so. Curry County was not required to write a check or pay the $450,000 to Salas, and therefore the matter itself was never addressed at a public meeting or during an executive session.
As a result of this lawsuit, Curry County has made major changes and taken steps to improve both the juvenile and adult detention facilities, to better defend these types of allegations, including installations of cameras to document the actions that may take place in the facilities.