The attorney general has also been asked to consider whether the city violated the Open Meetings Act by appointing Javier Perea to be mayor without letting everyone who sought to attend – including two others who wanted the job – into its meeting.
The Doña Ana County district attorney says her office is investigating the possibility that the Sunland Park City Council violated the N.M. Open Meetings Act last week when it selected a new mayor.
District Attorney Amy Orlando confirmed that her office is investigating, and said she’s also checking with Attorney General Gary King to see whether his office plans to investigate. The Open Meetings Act can be enforced by either agency.
The city council appointed 24-year-old Javier Perea to the mayor’s job last week after postponing a previous meeting that got rowdy because there were too many people to fit in the room. But the crowd was still too big to fit into the larger venue chosen for the new meeting, and many people – including at least two who wanted to ask for the appointment to the mayor’s job – were kept by police from entering.
The Open Meetings Act requires that anyone who tries to attend a public meeting of a government body be allowed in. Actions taken in violation of the law can be invalidated by a court. In addition, a violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine.
The act has rarely been enforced with criminal charges. The only time I’ve ever seen such enforcement involved the Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education. In 2002, then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid prosecuted five board members for secretly giving the former superintendent almost $1 million in incentives to try to keep him in Las Cruces. All five were convicted.
Orlando or King could file criminal charges against members of the Sunland Park City Council if they believe they find justification, or they could sue to ask a judge to rescind Perea’s appointment, or both.
Attorney general also asked to investigate
Gwyneth Doland, executive director of the N.M. Foundation for Open Government, told me for a commentary I published Monday that if she were one of the people who wanted to be considered for the appointment but wasn’t allowed in the meeting, “I’d be talking to my lawyer right now.”
At least one of those two is challenging Perea’s appointment. Jesse Grajeda was quoted today by the Albuquerque Journal as saying he’s asked King to get involved. From the Journal:
“By Monday afternoon, however, another prospect for the mayor’s office, Jesse Grajeda, said he was preparing to file a formal complaint alleging the City Council violated the state Open Meetings Act when Perea was appointed because members of the overflow crowd were prevented from entering the Senior Center hall where the meeting was held.”
Grajeda, Orlando disclosed, used to work with her in the district attorney’s office. But Orlando told NMPolitics.net her investigation isn’t about giving him another chance to be mayor – it’s about ensuring the law is enforced.
Grajeda isn’t the only one filing a complaint. From the Las Cruces Sun-News:
“Sun-News Editor Jim Lawitz faxed a letter Monday to King, requesting that the likely open meetings act violation in Sunland Park be investigated.
“‘It is our belief that city council broke the law,’ Lawitz said. ‘Now it’s up to the Attorney General’s Office to decide.’”
From Lawitz’s letter:
“The Sun-News several times in recent years has reported about likely violations of state open meetings act laws by Sunland Park officials. And residents have long complained of other violations, including of the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act. We believe a strong part of what has cultivated an environment for public corruption to thrive in Sunland Park is the fact that city officials have not been held legally liable for violating state open government laws. … Sunland Park officials must learn that the state’s sunshine laws indeed must be taken seriously.”