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Editorial: Steps forward and backward on open government

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Nancy “Rusty” Barceló, left, president of Northern New Mexico College, and Rosario “Chayo” Garcia, board president, listen to comments from an overflow crowd during a Board of Regents meeting last month. College officials have come under fire for discussing too many issues in closed meetings. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Nancy “Rusty” Barceló, left, president of Northern New Mexico College, and Rosario “Chayo” Garcia, board president, listen to comments from an overflow crowd during a Board of Regents meeting last month. College officials have come under fire for discussing too many issues in closed meetings. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

There are some good signs on the open government front.

At the direction of new Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, the City Council has started to provide appropriate notice of what it’s talking about in closed, executive sessions.

The council has in the past often used a boilerplate listing on its agenda to go behind closed doors to discuss “threatened or pending litigation.” Lawsuits are one of the topics for which the state Open Meetings Act allows discussion out of public view, based on the idea that public agencies shouldn’t have to disclose legal strategy or negotiations.

But thanks to Gonzales, we’re now at least being told specifically what “threatened or pending litigation” the council is reviewing in secret. At a recent council meeting, three pending lawsuits were noticed on the agenda for an executive session.

The County Commission and the Santa Fe school board have been doing the same thing for some time.

Providing notice of executive session subject matters is not the same as a public discussion, but it’s a positive step.

More broadly, the best thing would be if the City Council, as it is newly constituted since the March elections, would drop what appeared to be its position often in past years – that if the council could find a reason to meet in secret, it would, regardless of whether secrecy was merited or in the public interest.

There’s also been a recent setback on open meetings front. Last month, the regents of Northern New Mexico College met twice before voting to approve a budget with no tuition increases and cutting some instructional programs and several jobs.

In the first meeting, the board was behind doors for three hours or so and came out of the second executive session to announce there was a changed budget proposal that didn’t include tuition increases.

There’s no exception in the Open Meetings Act for budget talks, discussing tuition rates and cutting programs.

And it would be a reach to call cutting positions a “personnel matter” subject to confidentiality. That exception to open meetings is intended under law for “hiring, promotion, demotion, dismissal, assignment or resignation” of individual employees, not broader topics like program cuts that could effect individual teachers.

The “pending litigation” exception to the open meetings law? Maybe someone has threatened to sue the regents over some aspect of the whole budget controversy at Northern. But that doesn’t mean the entire discussion about budget, programs and tuition can move behind closed doors.

By holding what appears to have been nearly all of its budget debate beyond public earshot, the regents just added to the questions about what’s going on at Northern, where many faculty members are up in arms.

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