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AG’s office looking into possible open meeting complaint

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The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office is looking into whether or not Roswell city councilors violated the state’s Open Meetings Act through phone calls discussing recommendations of how to spend federal funding.

Matt Baca, chief counsel for the Attorney General’s Office, told the Roswell Daily Record on Wednesday a file had been submitted through the office’s complaint form on its website, but he said from the description it was not clear what the exact complaint was or if it was intended to be a formal complaint.

Baca said the Attorney General’s Office will follow up with the person who submitted the information, following its normal procedures.

“Chief counsel will take in the facts through a fact-finding process. If there is a violation, we will write to the entity to say as much,” he said.

Punitive action for a violation is not common, he said.

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“Particularly with the Open Meetings Act, the most available remedy is to redo what was done in compliance with the act,” he said.

The act does contain a criminal context, but such cases are rarely prosecuted, he said.   

At a Sept. 16 workshop of the Roswell City Council’s Finance Committee, Councilor Juan Oropesa raised concerns that telephone conversations among several other city councilors violated the Open Meetings Act.

During that discussion, Councilor Jacob Roebuck said he had called Councilors Jason Perry and Margaret Kennard — both of whom serve on the Finance Committee with Roebuck — about their opinions on staff suggestions of how to spend the city’s $11.7 million allocation from the federal American Rescue Plan.

That was the topic for the Sept. 16 meeting. Because it was a workshop, no decisions were made.

Oropesa at that meeting noted the three Finance Committee members comprised a quorum, or majority, of the committee and believed the phone conversations were a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The act addresses the concept of a “rolling quorum,” specifying that members do not have to be physically present together at the same time and place for a violation to occur.

Baca said he could not comment yet on whether or not a violation had occurred, but in general said conversations among elected officials are not strictly prohibited.

“While members subject to the Open Meetings Act are not strictly prohibited from discussing matters with fellow members outside of a meeting, we strongly caution against the practice of discussing current business before the body outside of a meeting to avoid any potential violations,” he said.

Oropesa reiterated his belief in an interview with the Daily Record on Wednesday, but said he does not plan to file a complaint with the attorney general himself. He said he had heard from several constituents with concerns about the situation, though.

“I know there are people that watched the meeting and some even review the meeting. And they can do whatever they want,” he said.

“I believe it was a violation of the Open Meetings Act, but that is based on my opinion,” he said.

Councilors Perry and Kennard and City Manager Joe Neeb said during the committee workshop they did not believe the phone calls were a violation because no decisions or agreements were made and there was no coercion to agree.

The information submitted to the attorney general’s office also mentions that the recording of the meeting uploaded to the city’s YouTube channel has no audio for the first 11 minutes and 30 seconds, which includes the portion of the meeting during which the alleged open meeting violation was discussed.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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