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Stream Commission accused of open meetings violation

Gila River

A proposal to divert water from the Gila River in southwest New Mexico underestimates the cost and overestimates the water available, the former head of the New Mexico state agency considering the idea says. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has repeatedly violated the state’s open meetings act in its deliberations over a multimillion-dollar Gila River water project, the agency’s former director charged Monday.

The commission delegated actions to a “Gila Subcommittee,” which met in secret, without public notice or opportunity for the public to participate in the subcommittee’s deliberations, Norm Gaume charged in a New Mexico Open Meetings Act violations letter delivered to the commission during a meeting held Monday in Albuquerque.

Gaume, who was the state water agency’s director from 1997 to 2002, has been an outspoken critic of a proposal to spend what could be as much as a billion dollars to divert water from the Gila River for farm and municipal use in southwestern New Mexico, delivered the letter following 10 minutes of testimony criticizing the project.

Gaume declined further comment, saying the letter speaks for itself. The letter starts a 15-day countdown to what could be a lawsuit on the issue, but Gaume would not say whether he intended to take the matter to court.

Amy Haas, chief counsel for the Interstate Stream Commission, declined comment Monday, saying she had not yet reviewed Gaume’s letter.

Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe attorney who is representing Gaume, said the open meetings act violations affect every facet of the controversial Gila project, which has been under review by the state for years. “It appears at this point that the violations of that act that we uncovered are clear and numerous,” Egolf told the Journal in a phone interview. Egolf, who serves as a state legislator, noted that he is acting in his capacity as a private attorney in representing Gaume.

The subcommittee’s work included decisions on the expenditure of public funds and evaluation of proposals for the project, all made “in secret without public notice,” Gaume charged in his letter.

“Creating a subcommittee doesn’t get you out from under the open meeting act if public business is being discussed,” Egolf said.

In his letter, Gaume cites records showing that the Gila Subcommittee was formed in November 2010 and undertook a wide range of activities in the years since, but without any public meeting notices or minutes recording the subcommittee’s actions.

Egolf said the scope of work done improperly over the past four years “is the entire project – everything.” Egolf said it is unclear how much of the work already completed on the project will have to be “unwound,” or what impact this might have on the project schedule. The Interstate Stream Commission has until the end of this year to make a decision about whether to proceed.

Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said that if Gaume’s letter accurately describes the Interstate Stream Commission’s actions, it appears the subcommittee’s meetings did violate the Open Meetings Act. “I think the burden’s on them to show why it shouldn’t be public,” Boe said Monday.

Gaume’s letter: