Five University of New Mexico regents apparently violated the state Open Meetings Act when they met in an unpublicized and closed meeting to discuss hospital matters last week.
Public governing bodies, such as regents, are required to announce any meetings attended by a quorum at which they formulate public policy, discuss public business or take any action. In the case of UNM, four or more regents would constitute a quorum.
“Any time a quorum of the regents meets and discusses public business, the Open Meetings Act applies. If the regents did not provide notice of the meeting and an opportunity for the public to participate, the act was violated,” said executive director Terry Schleder of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
Regents Suzanne Quillen, Conrad James, Heidi Overton, Brad Hosmer and Gene Gallegos attended the meeting last week with Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth and UNM Hospital CEO Steve McKernan. Three of those regents serve on the HSC board of directors.
That followed a separate special regents meeting, which was announced and held at the Pit, to evaluate President Bob Frank.
It was after that meeting, most of which was held in executive session but which complied with the Open Meetings Act, that several regents traveled to the Health Sciences Center and discussed a potential partnership between UNM Hospital and Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services in Gallup.
Frank did not attend the second meeting. However, the university’s new general counsel, Elsa Cole, did attend, according to HSC.
Gallegos said the meeting at HSC, for him, was “spur of the moment” and it wasn’t until late into the discussion when regents realized there was a quorum. He and other regents interviewed said they took no action and made no decisions other than choosing to meet in a public setting to further discuss the matter.
“That was basically all it was, was information,” Gallegos said. “Everybody said we’re not here to make any decisions.” Asked if he believed regents violated the act, Gallegos said they might have.
The compliance guide published by the Office of Attorney General Gary King states that the act applies “to any discussion of public business among a quorum.”
Overton, the student regent, said it was about 10 minutes before the meeting ended when regents realized the quorum could violate the Open Meetings Act. Overton said the earlier, hours-long regents session at the Pit had left her fatigued and she didn’t notice the quorum at HSC until very late into the meeting.
“I think we have a responsibility to do a better job of that, and it was really kind of the fatigue of the day and the amount of information that came that day,” Overton said. “From my point, it wasn’t intentional and it wasn’t intentional from any point of view, from HSC or anyone. It was all just trying to get us some information.”
HSC spokesman Billy Sparks said only three regents – Quillen, James and regents president Jack Fortner – originally were invited to the meeting. A discussion among that group would not have been a quorom and therefore would not have violated the Open Meetings Act.
The purpose was to explain a proposal made to the Gallup hospital by UNM and LHP Hospital Group, a privately owned Texas company. UNM and LHP Hospital Group are collaborating and have proposed to help the hospital with its finances and management. The project is in the very early stages, McKernan said.
“The fact that while no one planned the meeting that would fall under the Open Meetings Act, a quorum did ultimately attend as a result of the interest in the issue,” Sparks said. “Once the attendees realized that there may be an Open Meetings Act issue, the discussion shifted to how to schedule the issue for an open meeting. No decisions or actions were taken or made.”
Regents have since scheduled a public meeting on Tuesday to discuss the matter.
Fortner, who attended the meeting only momentarily, said regents could avoid the issue in the future “just being aware of it. Obviously nobody wants to violate the Open Meetings Act, intentionally or not. The 72-hour notice is important and we’ll (try) to do that better next time.”
Violation of the act can be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500, but criminal prosecutions are rare and have only involved deliberate evasion of the law.