The Socorro Consolidated School District Board of Education has been charged with violating the New Mexico Open Meetings Act (OMA) when it conducted its annual administrative retreat in July 2019 in Las Cruces.
A complaint filed by Frank Marquez with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office alleged the board violated the OMA when it conducted its meeting in La Cruces instead of Socorro, which was 150 miles from the district’s office and not held in “the community affected by decisions.”
The second part of Marquez’ complaint stated the board failed to provide reasonable notice for its meeting as required by OMA.
Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp stated in the Attorney General's decision, having the meeting outside the district was not a violation because the OMA does not provide a provision on a geographic location where a board must meet in a community affected by its decisions.
However, the second part of Marquez' complaint did provide substantial evidence that the board failed to give reasonable notice to its meeting on July 10, 2019. In his allegation, Marquez stated the board’s public notice was “deficient and that it conflicted with the agendas that were subsequently posted to its website.”
Marquez’ second allegation had merit, according to the Attorney General’s office. “Notice of upcoming meetings is vital in order for a public body to both inform the public of its activities and to allow the interested public to attend and observe the proceedings. In this sense, OMA’s requirement that all public bodies must provide the public with ‘reasonable notice’ in advance of any meeting is perhaps the single most important provision.”
While OMA does not specify the manner in which a notice must be posted, it does require public bodies to provide written notice to broadcast stations and newspapers of general circulation that have provided a written request for notices.
The Attorney General's office found the school board did violate the OMA because it did not provide reasonable notice of its meeting on July 10, 2019.
“The only evidence we have of the board’s notice to the public consists of posting in the Socorro Chieftain newspaper on July 4, six days prior to the meeting, and posting its agenda online on July 2, eight days prior to the meeting. This is almost certainly not reasonable notice,” Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp wrote. "For one, it appears the board failed to post a physical notice at a "place .. accessible to the public. …However, the more glaring deficiency in the board's notice was timing. It did not provide notice 10 days prior to the meeting.”
In addition, Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp noted the AG's office agreed with Marquez the start time listed on the board's meeting notice conflicted with the agenda listed on the web site. The newspaper listed the start time as 10 a.m., and the online notice on the web site was listed as 9 a.m. Minutes of the meeting noted the meeting started at 9 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. "Because an interested member of the public could have relied on the meeting notice and inadvertently arrived an hour late to the meeting, we agree with Mr. Marquez that the board's decision to convene its meeting an hour prior to the start time listed on its meeting notice represented an OMA violation."
As a result of the OMA violation, the Attorney General's office said the Socorro Consolidated School Board should take immediate action to familiarize itself with the requirements of OMA and ensure it has policies in place to comply with statutory obligations fully. "Given that OMA stands for the public policy in New Mexico that the people are entitled to 'the greatest possible information' about the affairs of government meetings notices are not trivial or insignificant, and it is essential the board provides reasonable notice to the public for all future meetings," Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp wrote.
Tuesday, Superindent Ron Hendrix said, “We received the letter spelling out the mistakes we made for our meeting last July and understand the requirements of notifications of meeting. The errors made in the notification of the meeting were simply clerical errors. We had just had a secretary leave and because of some miscommunication we didn’t get the notification right. Anyone who doesn’t have an axe to grind, can recognize that there was no deception intended. People who know our central office staff know that we would never do anything that would intentionally mislead anyone. Our board will publish our yearly meeting schedule earlier this year to assure people know when the meetings will take place. Our meetings will also be on our website for anyone to see.”