School board meetings must be accessible

Freedom New Mexico

Our newspaper is having a disagreement with Clovis Municipal Schools officials.

The school board met in executive session Tuesday night to discuss replacing Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm, who is retiring in June.

We agree that New Mexico law allows the board to meet in secret for this purpose. Where we disagree — at least with Superintendent Seidenwurm and a school attorney — is whether these meetings may take place in a locked building to which the public has no access.

Seidenwurm said yes they can and offered the lawyer’s letter as evidence on Wednesday.

The issue came up Tuesday when Clovis News Journal editors assigned a reporter to write a story about the board meeting.

We knew the reporter could not listen in on the meeting, but could gain insight by sitting in the lobby outside, as is the custom when board members adjourn into executive session from regular open meetings.

By being there, the reporter — or any member of the public — could determine multiple relevant facts about the search for a new school boss. For example:

• How long board members met (about an hour);

• Whether all board members were present and stayed throughout the meeting (Lola Bryant was absent);

• Whether anyone else attended, such as Seidenwurm, other school officials or advisors, etc. (nope).

School officials initially evicted our reporter from the lobby Tuesday, but relented when we contacted board members via cell phone to complain.

On Wednesday, Board President Lora Harlan asked for an attorney’s opinion, which states board members don’t have to let the public in the building next time.

Albuquerque lawyer Matt Campbell wrote: “… the School Board is free to have a completely closed meeting that is not open to the public in a location to which the public is not given access, in order to assure safety and security of a school property.”

We don’t think so.

We understand Seidenwurm’s and Harlan’s stated concerns about safety. They don’t want members of the public roaming around the administration building without supervision while board members are meeting behind closed doors in the superintendent’s office at the back of the building.

But that’s easy to address at no extra taxpayer cost: Have one of the district’s many salaried administrators sit with the public during the executive session.

The legal argument is the New Mexico Open Meetings Act does not specifically address the issue about meeting in locked buildings.

Well, the common-sense response is the Act also doesn’t address whether public officials should wear clothes to the meetings. (We think they should, by the way.)

In other words, you can’t word any law to cover every situation.

The Act states, “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government.” When in doubt, public officials should always side with transparency.

Sarah Welsh, executive director of New Mexico’s Foundation for Open Government, said, “(T)he Act is totally silent on the issue of locking the doors. To say that the law ‘allows’ them to do that is just reading into the law something that isn’t there.”

We seldom have issues with CMS’ board of directors or its administrators. Six years ago the Clovis’ school board was holding meetings at 6:30 a.m. and refusing to hear public comment. This group of board members put a stop to that nonsense. And from what we’ve observed, they’ve tried to conduct the public’s business openly since Seidenwurm arrived in 2005.

Tuesday night’s sudden security concern and the subsequent lawyer backup in case they want to try to “have a completely closed meeting that is not open to the public in a location to which the public is not given access” in the future was troubling.

Hopefully, they were just not thinking clearly and openly, and won’t start a new trend of meeting in the dark.