Cases target secret meetings


Five N.M. school board members face $2,000 in fines if guilty





Around the country, school board members and college administrators are being threatened with harsh punishments for illegally conducting business behind closed doors.

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In what may be an unprecedented action, five former Las Cruces school board members are facing criminal charges for alleged open-meetings violations. Two of the accused have been removed from the board since the New Mexico attorney general filed the charges earlier this year.

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The five officials face four criminal counts each -- at $500 per count -- for allegedly approving $390,000 in employment incentives for then-Superintendent Jesse L. Gonzales in four private meetings held between February 2000 and June 2001. Gonzales, who last year declined a request from the school board to return the benefits, has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

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Then-board president Mary F. Tucker and then-board member Jeanette H. Dickerson were accused in January along with former board members Ruben B. Alvarado, Clarence H. Fielder and William Soules. The five are being represented individually and the current board is distancing itself from the litigation, said district spokeswoman Jo Galván Nash.

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All five public officials waived arraignment on Feb. 18. They said they have approved superintendent contracts in closed session for at least 12 years because they thought they had to do so.

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"To my knowledge, this is the first time a criminal prosecution for violations of [the open-meetings] act has been brought," Attorney General Patricia Madrid said in a statement. "My office conducts seminars around the state to educate public officials about the act and their responsibilities under it. Given the egregious violations committed by the named board members in this case, I have decided that criminal prosecution is necessary."

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Chuck Davis, a current board member who reported the closed meetings to the state, said his review of records showed that the board had not taken any action to notify the public of the meetings in question, nor had members recorded decisions about Gonzales' contracts.

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Madrid said her office would attempt to recover and return some of the public money that the former board allegedly spent unlawfully in its private meetings.

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"Government that operates behind closed doors, excluding the public, is not a government in which people will have confidence," Madrid said.

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Local residents took that principle to heart, and successfully petitioned for a recall election in the districts served by Tucker and Dickerson. Both were ousted from their posts on April 2.

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Alleged violations of Montana open-meetings laws by state university officials led 14 news organizations to sue state Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts in February.

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The complaint, filed in Helena district court, states that Associated Press reporter Bob Anez tried to attend a meeting on Feb. 1 in Helena between Crofts and senior management officials of the state university system. According to the complaint, a disagreement ensued between Anez and Crofts over whether the gathering was subject to state open-meetings laws. Rather than allow Anez to stay, Crofts canceled the meeting altogether.

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LeRoy Schramm, the university system's chief attorney, said a 1993 state supreme court decision allows management meetings, like the recent one headed by Crofts, to be closed. All the officials present were answerable to Crofts, making it merely a staff meeting, Schramm said.

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Media lawyer Ron Waterman disagreed.

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"Because of the [open-meetings] law and the cases that have construed that statute to date, it is clear that those senior management meetings are covered by the open-meetings law," he said. "Therefore the public and the press are entitled to be present at all of them and to receive notice of when they are going to occur."

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An agenda for Crofts' five-hour scheduled meeting obtained by the AP shows 19 items slated for discussion, including budgetary and student tuition issues.

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In the complaint, Waterman asked the court to declare that all such meetings are open and to prevent Crofts from holding any similar closed meetings.

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In Kansas, the Wyandotte County district attorney filed a civil lawsuit against seven school board members of the Piper Unified School District near Kansas City, alleging five separate violations of the state open-meetings act.

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The board held a closed meeting to discuss the meaning of plagiarism after Christine Pelton, a biology teacher at Piper High School, gave 28 students zeros for plagiarizing a botany project. The school board overturned Pelton's decision without holding an open vote.

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If found guilty, the board members could each face fines of $2,500.


reports, Spring 2002