Five school board members in N.M. face criminal charges in open-meetings case

NEW MEXICO — In what may be an unprecedented action,the state attorney general in January filed criminal charges againsttwo current and three former school board members for allegedopen-meetings violations.

The five officials face four criminal counts each for allegedlyapproving $390,000 in employment incentives for then-SuperintendentJesse L. Gonzales in four private meetings held between February2000 and June 2001. Gonzales, who last year declined a requestfrom the current school board to return the benefits, has notbeen accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

Accused are board president Mary F. Tucker, board member JeanetteH. Dickerson, and former board members Ruben B. Alvarado, ClarenceH. Fielder and William Soules. The five are being representedindividually and the current board is distancing itself from thelitigation, district spokeswoman Jo Galván Nash said.

All five public officials waived arraignment on Feb. 18. Theysaid they have approved superintendent contracts in closed sessionfor at least 12 years because they thought they had to do so.

"To my knowledge, this is the first time a criminal prosecutionfor violations of [the open-meetings] act has been brought,"Attorney General Patricia Madrid said in a statement. "Myoffice conducts seminars around the state to educate public officialsabout the act and their responsibilities under it. Given the egregiousviolations committed by the named board members in this case,I have decided that criminal prosecution is necessary."

Chuck Davis, a current school board member who reported theclosed meetings to the state, said his colleagues should havebeen fully versed in their responsibilities under the open-meetingsact.

"I don’t know what they knew or didn’t know," Davissaid. "They’ve been [public officials] for a period of time,there are pamphlets out, and everybody’s trained in it."

Davis said that his review of school board records showed thatthe board had not taken any action to notify the public of thefour meetings in question, nor had they recorded public approvalof decisions about Gonzales’ contracts.

Madrid said her office would also review civil enforcementmeasures to attempt to recover and return some of the public moneythat the board allegedly spent unlawfully in its private meetings.

"Government that operates behind closed doors, excludingthe public, is not a government in which people will have confidence,"Madrid said.

Local residents have taken that principle to heart, forminga group called Citizens for Responsible Representation that successfullypetitioned for a recall election this year in the districts servedby Tucker and Dickerson. Their current posts, originally set toend in February 2003, will go up for election on April 2.

Violation of the state’s open-meetings act is a misdemeanorthat is personally applicable to public officials and is punishableby a fine of up to $500 for each offense.