UNM Board of Regents to meet again over decision to cut sports

This file photo shows the UNM Board of Regents meeting where the Attorney General’s Office said it violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it voted to cut sports. (Journal file)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

They will indeed meet again.

The University of New Mexico Board of Regents has announced a new meeting Friday to consider and act on a proposal to cut men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing, women’s beach volleyball, and the diving portion of women’s swimming and diving. The meeting follows weeks of criticism from the public and, more recently, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, regarding how the regents conducted a similar meeting on July 19.

The formal notice for Friday’s 1 p.m. meeting in the Student Union Building says the special meeting is “to cure claimed violations of the Open Meetings Act.”

But while the agenda lists the athletics matter as an “action item” – meaning the regents can vote on it – Balderas’ office is questioning the wisdom of taking action so quickly, recommending that Friday serve as an informational session and that regents should not take action until a separate meeting at a later date.

Balderas entered the conversation last week when his office – in response to two complaints from private citizens – issued a formal opinion that the regents’ July 19 meeting was invalid because the agenda violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by not providing sufficient details about what actions it planned to consider regarding UNM athletics. The notice simply said “Discussion and Action on Athletics.”

UNM’s legal office disputed the determination that the meeting violated the Open Meetings Act, but UNM agreed to hold the special meeting.

UNM officials said Tuesday that there were no plans to drastically alter the proposal to cut sports, but that they would try to post online as much data and documents as possible to help the public understand how they crafted the proposal. UNM had previously posted both the report and recommendation for the cuts, as well as the Title IX analysis on actions the school can take to comply with the federal act.

The new agenda was also much more specific, including wording that said the regents would consider and act on the administration’s proposal and plan “relative to Athletics Department financial stability, to include considering the discontinuation of UNM Men’s Soccer, Men and Women’s Ski Teams, Beach Volleyball, and Diving as intercollegiate athletic programs.”

Critics had blasted UNM for providing limited information leading up to the July 19 vote. UNM did not release the proposal’s details until after 5 p.m. on July 18, just hours before the regents convened the next morning.

After his office issued the opinion on an Open Meetings Act violation, Balderas continued raising other concerns. At a news conference the next day, he challenged the transparency of UNM’s entire sports-cutting process and urged UNM to redo the entire evaluation with more public involvement.

His office maintained the pressure this week.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Tania Maestas emailed UNM’s legal counsel Tuesday to suggest two meetings would be better than one.

“We remain highly concerned that your proposed special meeting will only serve to summarily raise the issues addressed at the July 19th meeting and simply allow the board to re-vote,” Maestas wrote in the email obtained by the Journal. “In order to be fully transparent and to comply with the full spirit of OMA, the OAG strongly advises that you allow the public and the board a meaningful opportunity for full disclosure of information and to evaluate the proposed course of action and then subsequently vote on the proposed decision.”

Asked last week whether he was attempting to influence the regents into a different outcome, especially after tweeting that a new meeting meant the board had an “opportunity to get this right,” Balderas said that the regents could make their own decisions, but that he wanted the process to be done correctly.

In suggesting that regents hold off on any actual decisions until a second meeting, Maestas’ email also referred to a newly filed lawsuit. Maria Touchet’s lawsuit alleges various Open Meetings Act violations on July 19, including a “rolling quorum” – which essentially means regents discussed privately their plans before the meeting and didn’t properly consider the public comment portion of the meeting.

The board voted 6-0 on July 19 to cut the sports while also eliminating the diving portion of the women’s swim team, and slashing in half the men’s track and cross-country rosters. The vote ratified recommendations from Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez and President Garnett Stokes, who cited three primary factors in the decision: finances, Title IX gender equity compliance and affiliation with the Mountain West Conference.

The department’s financial struggles included budgetary shortfalls in eight of the past 11 fiscal years.

But many have second-guessed the decision to cut sports.

Four days after the vote, five Democratic state legislators called a news conference urging regents to hold off on any cuts so they could explore funding options and suggesting UNM never asked lawmakers for help. UNM officials say they have previously asked for additional state funds for athletics.

The Journal reached out to Reps. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the two who organized the July 23 news conference, to ask if they had spoken with UNM about possible funding relief, but did not hear back.

Nuñez told the Journal that although he has had numerous conversations in recent weeks about the sports cuts decisions, including informal ones with lawmakers, none has offered specifics about how the department might get long-term funding to avoid the cuts.

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