Official: No laws were violated

Courtesy illustration

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

A quorum of Curry County commissioners dining with the executive director of Eastern Plains Council of Governments on Tuesday did not violate open government laws, Commissioner Dan Stoddard said.

Commissioners Stoddard, Caleb Chandler and Wendell Bostwick met at Eddie’s Subs and More on Main Street with Richard Arguello, interim director of EPCOG.

Freedom New Mexico Editor David Stevens received a telephone tip of the gathering and found the four at a table in the restaurant. When Stevens asked about the quorum — in the case of Curry County, a majority gathering of three or more commissioners — Chandler said they were not discussing any county business.

Arguello told Stevens, “We’re discussing my business,” but did not elaborate.

Curry County is a member of EPCOG, which assists government entities in seven local counties with infrastructure planning and economic development.

State law requires advance notice of a meeting anytime a quorum gathers to discuss public business.

The executive director of New Mexico’s Foundation for Open Government said she has concerns about the gathering.

“If they wanted to discuss something with (Arguello) they could have discussed it with him in the (earlier) already open meeting,” said Sarah Welsh, executive director of FOG.

Welsh said the need for transparency is critical and is the spirit behind open-government meeting laws. She said Tuesday’s lunch raises serious concerns about that process.

“It has the implication that people don’t know what their government is up to,” Welsh said.

Curry County commissioners held a scheduled meeting on Tuesday morning. The lunch was not listed on Tuesday’s meeting agenda, nor was it announced at the meeting.

But Stoddard said the lunch fell within guidelines set by an open meetings resolution the Commission adopted in January.

The resolution, titled, “Compliance with the New Mexico Open Meetings Act,” states, “during any meeting or after, the Board may adjourn for the purpose of lunch or dinner.”

Stoddard said while the lunch was not about county matters, the public was welcome to join them.

Bostwick said the conversation was casual, with discussion about an upcoming fundraiser hosted by Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield and issues in Arguello’s native community of Clayton.

Chandler did not return calls from a reporter seeking comment Tuesday. Arguello could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

County Commissioner Bobby Sandoval said he declined an invitation to Tuesday’s lunch.

“I try to stay away from any implication of impropriety,” Sandoval said.

“At the same time, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with friends getting together for lunch as long as the Open Meetings Act is observed. … There is no law against the appearance of impropriety.”

Sandoval said he has had lunch with a quorum of commissioners at least one time, but does not join them often. “I am the kind of person who worries about things like that (appearance of impropriety),” he said.

Commission Chairman Frank Blackburn said he was surprised to learn of Tuesday’s lunch gathering between commissioners.

“I’m unaware of this … I was not invited,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn said he avoids quorum situations outside of open meetings and would not have attended the lunch if he’d been invited.

On the Web

New Mexico Attorney General’s guides on the Open Meetings Act:
http://www.nmag.gov/Publications/Default.aspx?View=3