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Palenick-City Dispute Alive

By Rosalie Rayburn
Journal Staff Writer
      A District Court judge has ruled out any quick resolution to the legal dispute between former City Manager Jim Palenick and the city of Rio Rancho.
       At a hearing in Sandoval County's 13th Judicial District Court on Thursday, Judge George P. Eichwald denied competing requests by attorneys representing Palenick and the city for summary judgments in their favor.
       Eichwald believes a critical aspect of the case remains unclear but he urged both sides to try to reach a settlement rather than take the case to trial.
       Palenick sued the city in January, claiming he was fired illegally in December 2006 and that the city owes him more than $120,000 in back pay. He based his claim on an opinion issued by the Attorney General's Office in September 2007, which said that conversations between Rio Rancho's former Mayor Kevin Jackson and four city councilors prior to Palenick's firing constituted a violation of the state's Open Meetings Act.
       The city claims it followed the attorney general's direction to cure the violation at a public meeting in November 2007, where councilors again voted to fire Palenick.
       Lawyers representing the city claim Palenick waived any objections to his termination by accepting a severance package worth more than $100,000.
       “Mr. Palenick demanded a severance package. The city paid it. The city acted appropriately,” said Holly Agajanian, an attorney with Montgomery & Andrews, the law firm representing the city in the case.
       She called Palenick's claim seeking back pay “an exploitative attempt at a money grab,” which runs counter to the intent of the state Open Meetings Act.
       Palenick's lawyer, Daniel Faber, said the law provides a procedure to cure violations but they must be prompt. The city waited 11 months, Faber said.
       “That is hardly prompt corrective action,” Faber said.
       He claimed the lengthy delay rendered the corrective action invalid.
       Even if the action the council took in November did correct the violation, Faber said, Palenick should still receive back pay for the 11-month period.
       Eichwald said he agreed with the attorney general's opinion that there had been an Open Meetings Action violation. He agreed the city had corrected the violation but was not convinced that the City Council's action in November could be retroactive to the date of the violation.
       Eichwald asked the attorneys to pursue a possible settlement.
       In an interview after the hearing, Randy Bartell, the other attorney representing Rio Rancho, said he would have to consult with the city attorney.
       Faber said he believed Palenick would be amenable to a settlement.
       Palenick came to Rio Rancho in 2003. He is now the city manager in Gastonia, N.C.