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$120K in back pay denied to former RR city manager

FOR THE RECORD: State Supreme Court Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes’ name has been corrected in this story.

Former Rio Rancho City Manager James Palenick’s yearslong battle with the city, claiming he was illegally fired and due more than $120,000 in back pay, is over.

The New Mexico Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion on Thursday that said Palenick waived his right to the back pay by accepting a severance package from the city, worth about $111,000.

The opinion written by Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes reversed a Court of Appeal decision issued in November 2011.

Because his actions amounted to a waiver of his right to claim the back pay, the court said it did not need to address Palenick’s assertion that his firing in 2006 was illegal because of an Open Meetings Act violation by members of the city’s governing body.

“That’s disappointing, but that’s what we have to live with,” said Dan Faber, Palenick’s attorney.

Palenick filed the lawsuit against the city in District Court in 2008, a few months after the Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that said conversations between former Mayor Kevin Jackson and several city councilors before they voted to fire him in December 2006 violated the state Open Meetings Act.

The Open Meetings Act, among other things, prohibits a quorum of elected officials from conducting public business in private. Actions taken in violation of the act are invalid.

The council acted to correct the violation in November 2007, 11 months after firing Palenick.

Sandoval County Thirteenth Judicial District Court Judge George Eichwald ruled in 2009 that steps the City Council took to correct the violation ratified its previous vote to fire Palenick.

The Court of Appeals sided with Palenick, saying a city can’t wait nearly a year to correct a violation of the Open Meetings Act. The City of Rio Rancho asked the Supreme Court to affirm the District Court decision.

“After nearly six years of litigation, the city is pleased to have this matter resolved. The New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision supports what the city has believed all along, that Mr. Palenick’s claims lacked legal basis,” Rio Rancho City Attorney James Babin said.