The New Mexico State University Board of Regents hasn’t been sufficiently explaining the legal justification for its closed-door meetings, officials are admitting — and they’re pledging better transparency going forward.
The N.M. Open Meetings Act (OMA) only allows NMSU’s five-member Board of Regents and other government policymaking bodies to shut the public out of meetings for a handful of reasons — such as discussing litigation, personnel issues and collective bargaining negotiations. Even then, such bodies can’t take formal action in what are called executive sessions. After secretly discussing an issue, formal votes must be taken in public.
And to meet in private, OMA requires that the public be given “reasonable specificity” about what provision in law allows the Regents to shut the doors and what they’re going to be discussing.
Many times in the last decade NMSU’s governing body hasn’t done that. For example, the notice for a meeting held Sept. 7, 2007 stated vaguely that the Regents would be discussing “personnel, real estate and legal matters.” The notice for a June 22, 2011 closed-door meeting stated that “personnel matters and matters of pending or threatened litigation” would be discussed. And the notice for an Oct. 21, 2015 meeting stated that the Regents would discuss “personnel, real estate, water rights and threatened or pending litigation matters.”
“It is my understanding that the OMA is requiring more specificity in regard to executive sessions covered in the act,” Janet Green, the Regents’ chief of staff, told NMPolitics.net late Sunday. Added Debra Hicks, the chair of the Regents: “Yes, we will include more specificity in the agenda items for our executive sessions.”
The issue came to light over the weekend after the university sent out a notice that the Regents would meet Monday in executive session to discuss “personnel, real estate, water rights and threatened or pending litigation matters.” Hobbs resident Nick Maxwell emailed a complaint to the Regents early Sunday alleging that the notice wasn’t specific enough to comply with OMA. He demanded that the Regents cancel the meeting.
The Regents announced the cancellation of the meeting Sunday evening and said it will be rescheduled for a later date.
Green said she has been issuing notices of Regents meetings for about two years. “This is the first time in my tenure here it had posed a problem for a constituent,” Green said. “As requested, we have cancelled the meeting but will schedule in accordance with the request for a more specific agenda for the executive session.”
“Reasonable specificity” means “sufficient information to give the public a general idea about what will be discussed without compromising the confidentiality conferred by the exception,” the OMA compliance guide published by the Office of the Attorney General states.
The AG’s guide gives a couple of examples: Telling the public that “possible disciplinary action against an employee” will be discussed is compliant, the AG advises. So is naming a specific lawsuit to be discussed. The goal of the transparency law is to ensure that “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them,” OMA states.
Maxwell said he’s thankful that the Regents are “immediately fixing the
violation” related to Monday’s meeting, calling it “one step towards substantial compliance with the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.”
Susan Boe, the N.M. Foundation for Open Government’s (FOG) executive director, praised the Regents’ move toward compliance with the law.
“FOG is pleased to hear the Regents will be providing more specific information to the public about its executive sessions — as required by OMA,” Boe said. “Congratulations to Nick Maxwell for shining a light on this problem!”
Maxwell said he’s also concerned that the Regents are holding a public meeting Monday that won’t be webcast. The Regents are scheduled to vote at that meeting on issues including cuts to employee benefits.
“The taxpayers are paying for webcasting for the protection of our representatives and public employees,” he said. “OMA clearly implies that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of the NMSU Board of Regents. … The public is always entitled to the greatest possible information, which in this case includes live and archived video recordings of open meetings.”
OMA doesn’t require webcasting, but the Regents usually do webcast their meetings. Monday’s public session is being held in a meeting room that isn’t set up for webcasting.