Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
When the governor last month appointed Michael Brasher to the University of New Mexico Board of Regents, Brasher cited in a Journal interview his ongoing service on the State Board of Finance as relevant higher education experience.
Indeed, the Board of Finance’s significant authority extends to many college and university matters.
The seven-member panel led by Gov. Susana Martinez in recent months has granted approval for New Mexico State University to proceed with a $21.5 million dormitory project and for Western New Mexico University’s master of nursing and post-master family nurse practitioner certificate.
But it’s precisely the board’s level of involvement in higher education that some say will require Brasher to tread carefully now that he also has governance responsibility at UNM.
Some lawmakers and government ethics advocates contacted by the Journal say Brasher should at the very least recuse himself from any Board of Finance votes involving UNM.
And some are also questioning the wisdom of putting Brasher on two boards where the potential conflict exists.
“For me it’s just frustrating because we’ve got so many qualified people in the state – why do we need to have one person do two separate things? … Don’t we have a bigger pool to choose from?” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization that promotes transparent, accountable government.
“It’s not that he’s not a great guy. He’s got an impeccable record. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that he’s already doing something, and so you’re putting him in a position where he’s got conflicts of interest right off the bat. And I just think we’ve seen this in so many instances, with so many people, so many governors.”
Martinez appointed Brasher to both boards. But neither she nor Brasher is talking about how Brasher intends to navigate his dual roles.
Martinez’s spokesmen and Brasher have not responded to Journal inquiries on the subject.
Harrison said Brasher should erect “serious firewalls” between his two roles to maintain the public’s trust. She said he should not participate in anything at the Board of Finance that is “monetarily benefitting” the university.
The Board of Finance has a say in many public agency actions.
Colleges and universities must get their approval to issue revenue bonds, purchase real property, construct new buildings, do any major remodeling projects or add graduate programs.
UNM has gone to the Board of Finance recently with its master’s program in Native American Studies and with a plan to buy 0.786 acre of land in Taos for a new Harwood Museum of Art parking lot. The board approved both.
But the board was also the notable foil in UNM Hospital’s 2012 plan for a new hospital. The board effectively killed the effort by never voting on the project, thus preventing UNM from proceeding.
The university has since conceived a different proposal for a new hospital, though it remains in the planning stages.
Some prominent lawmakers contacted say that Brasher should start recusing himself from certain BOF decisions.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said Brasher should not vote on any UNM-specific project.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Brasher should recuse himself on any higher education vote – even those not specific to UNM.
“Quite frankly, I think his vote would be tainted just by the position he’s in for all of higher education,” Smith said.
Sen. Steven Neville, an Aztec Republican, said that many UNM – and possibly some other higher education votes – could present a conflict for Brasher. He said Brasher should consider, on a case-by-case basis, recusing himself from the BOF’s various university decisions, even if only to combat public perception that he has a conflict.
“I think it’s going to be a bit of a tightrope he’s going to have to walk to make sure he does the job right,” Neville said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, (but) he’s going to have to be very cautious.”
According to the state’s Governmental Conduct Act, “full disclosure of real or potential conflicts of interest shall be a guiding principle for determining appropriate conduct” for public officials and “at all times, reasonable efforts shall be made to avoid undue influence and abuse of office in public service.”
Kathleen Sabo of the nonpartisan nonprofit New Mexico Ethics Watch said it would be prudent for Brasher to avoid any Board of Finance votes involving UNM.
When it comes to votes involving other institutions with which UNM sometimes competes – such as New Mexico State University – she said it’s less obvious, but she hopes it inspires an open dialogue.
“It would be great if the Board of Finance as a whole would discuss the matter out in the open,” she said.
State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, a Board of Finance member, said the matter has not been discussed by the board, since it hasn’t met since Brasher’s appointment to the regents.
Eichenberg said he can only assume that Brasher will recuse himself from any UNM matters, calling him an “honorable” man. He said he does not think Brasher must sit out votes on all higher education requests.
“Michael Brasher is going to do the right thing, and, that would be, he would not vote on an issue before the Board of Finance that concerns the University of New Mexico,” he said.