SANTA FE – A vacancy in the New Mexico Senate caused by the resignation of Sen. Phil Griego has set off a political donnybrook and ignited debate over the state’s open meetings laws.
At issue is the timeline for appointing a replacement to the Senate District 39 seat, which Griego, a San Jose Democrat, held for 18-plus years until resigning Saturday due to ethics violations that hinged on his role in the sale of a historic state-owned building.
With just five days left in this year’s 60-day legislative session, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who has the authority to choose a replacement from a list of names provided by county commissioners in the six counties the Senate district covers parts of, has pushed for counties to move quickly to send her names.
“This is a unique, unprecedented situation for a vacancy to occur at this time of year, and as a flurry of decisions are made in the coming week, the residents of this district could be heavily impacted by their lack of representation,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell told the Journal.
However, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government has warned counties that rushed decisions could be invalidated because a 2013 law requires, in most cases, agendas for public meetings to be posted at least 72 hours in advance.
“Democracy sometimes is not efficient,” Susan Boe, the open government group’s executive director, said Monday in an interview. “We’re simply addressing the law.”
The Governor’s Office has argued the Senate vacancy is an emergency situation and, as such, is an allowable exemption under the 72-hour notice law.
The law defines an emergency as “unforeseen circumstances that, if not addressed immediately by the public body, will likely result in injury or damage to persons or property or substantial financial loss to the public body.”
Both the state’s Republican and Democratic parties have weighed in on the subject, with Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Debbie Maestas urging county commissioners on Monday to act as quickly as possible and state Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman criticizing Martinez, saying the governor was advocating for a “clear violation” of state law.
Only two of the six counties that contain parts of Senate District 39 – Lincoln and Torrance – had complied with the request and sent names to the Governor’s Office by Monday.
Three of the other counties – Santa Fe, Valencia and San Miguel – won’t hold meetings to pick names until Friday, the day before the session ends. Bernalillo County, which contains about 1 percent of the district’s total population, is slated to hold a meeting Wednesday.
A Martinez spokesman said the governor had hoped to name an appointment by Monday, but instead planned to wait until later in the week to act.
However, asked whether the governor would hold off until all six counties had submitted a name, Martinez spokesman Knell said, “That’s not necessarily correct.”
One of the two names submitted for the governor’s consideration is Ted Barela, a Republican who is a retired state worker and served as mayor of Estancia from 2008 until 2013.
The other is Tom Stewart, an Alto resident who was elected last year to the Lincoln County Commission. Stewart is a retired U.S. Army colonel and spent 13 years as Lincoln County manager before being elected to the County Commission.
Late Monday, three Senate District 39 residents filed a petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court requesting that justices either order the four counties to hold prompt meetings or compel Martinez to pick from the two names submitted to date.
The petition was filed by Paul Kienzle, an Albuquerque attorney who was appointed to the state Game Commission by Martinez.
Meanwhile, the Griego situation has also raised questions about the legislative ethics committee process, which is used to investigate ethical complaints about lawmakers.
Much of the committee process is cloaked in confidentiality. Committee members are barred from talking about pending complaints, and a probe remains confidential – with any meetings held behind closed doors – until there is a probable cause finding.
NMFOG Executive Director Boe said Monday that the legislative ethics committee process should be made more transparent.
“There are a lot of questions that would be nice to know,” she said.
Among the unknowns is how long a Senate subcommittee of the interim legislative ethics committee was investigating Griego and who filed the initial complaint.
Facts included in a Saturday report released by the ethics committee included a $50,000 broker’s fee received by Griego for monitoring the sale proceedings of the property deal in question.
He signed the contract with a private buyer who purchased the historic state-owned building near downtown Santa Fe last year. The property deal was approved by legislators during the final days of the 2014 session. Griego did not disclose any interest in the property sale when the issue came before the Senate.
The state constitution prohibits legislators from financially benefiting from any contract resulting from a law passed during their term in office and for a period of time after they leave.