By all appearances, the Sunland Park City Council tried to comply with the Open Meetings Act in appointing a new mayor, but it still failed. The city’s leaders don’t seem to know how to let sunshine in. They need help.
The N.M. Open Meetings Act requires that anyone who wants to be let into a public meeting of a government body be allowed in. Here’s the provision in the law:
“… all persons desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings.”
By all appearances, the Sunland Park City Council tried to make that happen during its search for a new mayor. Councilors postponed one meeting after it got rowdy because there were too many people to fit in the room. They found a bigger venue.
But their attempt to involve the public still failed.
Police blocked the entrance to the larger room at least 30 minutes before the meeting started because the room was full. Many Sunland Park residents and others weren’t allowed to attend the meeting. Among those kept out were at least two residents who wanted to ask the council to consider appointing them mayor.
Absent those choices, the city council appointed 24-year-old Javier Perea, who showed up at the meeting with his résumé in hand and walked away with the task of leading the most scandal-plagued city in the state into a new era of ethics and transparency.
Here’s what Gwyneth Doland, executive director of the N.M. Foundation for Open Government, said about the situation:
“Why on earth would you do something so important as choose the next mayor when the room isn’t big enough to hold all the people applying for the job? The Open Meetings Act REQUIRES you to let in everyone who wants to be there. I don’t know if this is malevolence or incompetence, but I know I don’t much like the choices.
“If I were one of those guys who wanted to be mayor and didn’t get in the meeting, I’d be talking to my lawyer right now.”
Hoping for incompetence
I’m hoping for incompetence. No offense to Perea, but why would a city council appoint someone to be mayor minutes after seeing his résumé for the first time, without a background check or even basic verification of the information on that sheet of paper?
The council should have set up a process that included submitting applications in writing by a certain deadline, public dissemination of that information, time for public feedback, and background checks. Then the council should have held its meeting at the largest school gymnasium in the city. The candidates should have been publicly interviewed at the meeting, in front of anyone who wanted to be present, and taken public input.
Only then should the council should have made its selection.
Such a process would have taken some time, but it would have increased the chances that the council was making a good decision and ensured compliance with the Open Meetings Act. In other words, it’s what should have been done to serve the city’s residents.
Which allegedly hasn’t been the case in Sunland Park for a long time. Many of the city’s leaders are currently facing felony charges that all involve preserving their own power and using the city’s money for personal gain.
Sunland Park needs a new direction. If Perea remains mayor, let’s hope he can quickly grow into the job of building a culture of transparency and accountability – and an attitude of service to the 14,000 residents of the city.
Of course, given Sunland Park’s unpredictability, there’s no certainty Perea will be mayor. Gerardo Hernandez, who lost the March 6 election to Daniel Salinas before Salinas forfeited the seat, is challenging the election results in court, alleging that voter fraud swayed the results. It appears there might actually have enough voter fraud to affect the outcome, so Hernandez might have a case.
And someone else who wanted to ask the council to appoint him or her to the job but was kept out of the meeting by police might sue. Perea’s selection violated the Open Meetings Act and, as the act states, any action taken by a public policymaking body in violation of the act is invalid.
A baby step
I don’t know how this is all going to shake out. But if Perea stays mayor, I’m at least encouraged that he seems to have intelligence and youthful energy. He made a public speaking blunder shortly after being appointed, but he can learn from it and move on.
Similarly, I hope the council learns from this experience and develops a mindset of openness and transparency. For as long as I’ve been a journalist, Sunland Park has intentionally operated in the dark. That has to change, now.
The city council took a baby step by delaying its meeting once and trying to find a bigger venue to accommodate more people. Even if its efforts to comply with the Open Meetings Act failed, let’s hope there’s a spark there that can light a fire.
Doland and the Attorney General’s Office travel around the state teaching local governments how to comply with the Open Meetings and Inspection of Public Records acts. I hope they schedule a training session in Sunland Park as soon as possible. The city needs help. Its residents deserve better.