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Suit seeks to block UNM’s vote on sports

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The firestorm over the University of New Mexico’s controversial decision to cut sports intensified Friday with a new lawsuit against the institution’s governing board.

Maria Touchet is suing the UNM Board of Regents in District Court in Albuquerque, alleging the board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act with a July 19 vote to eliminate Lobo men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and women’s beach volleyball. The vote also cut diving from women’s swimming and diving and reduced roster spots in men’s track and field.

Touchet is asking a judge to rule the vote violated the Open Meetings Act and the state Constitution and issue an injunction to prohibit UNM from initiating any of the measures included in the plan the regents approved.

The complaint comes just days after the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General determined that UNM had violated the OMA by failing to provide the public with enough specific information on the meeting’s agenda.

Touchet and another private citizen, David Pato, had filed separate complaints with Attorney General Hector Balderas that prompted his office to review the matter.

Touchet’s lawsuit raises concerns similar to those raised in her letter to the attorney general. She cites the agenda’s lack of detail and alleges the board had arrived at the decision ahead of the meeting through “a series of secret communications,” which she says represents a rolling quorum. Her suit also says the vote was “unconstitutional” since the board did not include a member of the student body as outlined in the constitution. UNM student Regent Garrett Adcock graduated in May, though a UNM spokeswoman has said he intends to take classes this fall.

Her lawsuit also asks a “duly constituted Board of Regents” to “reconsider” the action taken July 19 and to pay her legal fees.

UNM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Touchet noted that the attorney general’s opinion is only advisory in nature and that it also did not weigh in on the Adcock matter, which is among the reasons she proceeded with a lawsuit.

“Only the courts can legally force UNM to do what they are required to do under the law, and only the courts can make a decision as to the constitutionality question. We filed the Complaint … in district court as a means of forcing UNM to engage in the transparency that is required under the law and as a means to ensure the students affected are protected under the law,” she said in an email to the Journal.

Balderas’ office notified UNM of the OMA violation on Wednesday, recommending the regents rectify the situation with a new meeting within 15 days. UNM disputed the ruling in a written response to Balderas’ office, but has indicated it would re-conduct the meeting.

But Balderas raised the stakes Thursday, alleging an overall lack of transparency in how UNM developed the plan to cut sports and saying UNM should redo the entire evaluation process. He also expressed a willingness to sue UNM if he did not think it resolved the situation properly.

UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez and President Garnett Stokes recommended to regents the plan to cut four sports and trim a few others as a way to stabilize an athletic department with chronic budgetary shortfalls and newly surfaced Title IX compliance issues. Regents in April had approved a long-term plan that required reducing annual expenditures by $1.9 million annually through a “reduction in sports,” but tasked Nuñez with crafting the specifics. Nuñez spent the next few months evaluating the department and arriving at his recommendations, but UNM did not publicly unveil the details until the night before the July 19 meeting. Stokes has said UNM was fine-tuning the report “until the very last moment,” but many have blasted the university for the limited notice.

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