- Both Bloomfield City Council and San Juan College Board agendas have included generic agenda items for closed sessions.
- Improperly closed meetings could lead to decisions becoming invalid, criminal penalties.
Compliance guide: Open Meetings Act requires information to give the public a general idea about what will be discussed in closed session without compromising confidentiality
FARMINGTON — The Bloomfield City Council and the San Juan College Board of Trustees will add more details to their agendas following an inquiry by The Daily Times about the requirements for describing closed sessions as detailed in the state's Open Meetings Act.
Both the college board and the Bloomfield council have used generic language on agendas when announcing closed sessions.
The Open Meetings Act requires “sufficient information to give the public a general idea about what will be discussed without compromising the confidentiality,” according to the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General’s Open Meetings Act Compliance Guide.
Both the college and the city will adjust their agendas to be more specific about what they will discuss in closed session.
Improved wording could speed the process
Edward DesPlas, the college’s vice president of administrative services, said Monday the college's legal counsel told him the board was in compliance with the the Open Meetings Act "up to a point."
"We may be doing it by the spirit of the law, but we may not be hitting it to the letter," he said.
DesPlas said his counsel told him the college didn't break any laws because the board didn't make decisions regarding items discussed in closed session immediately following those sessions. He said the board would place the items on the next month's agenda to be voted on then by the board.
DesPlas said future agendas will detail the reasons the board is having a closed session. He said listing the items that will be discussed in closed session could also allow the board to act on those items during the same meeting.
The San Juan College Board used to place a "boiler plate" item on its agenda when there was a chance that it could call a closed session.
That agenda item stated: “Tentative closed session: discussions of license, personnel matters, bargaining strategy preliminary to collective bargaining; purchases exceeding $2,500.00 that can be made from only one source and the contents of competitive sealed proposals during the contract negotiation process; threat of litigation; and/or real property or water rights acquisition/disposition.”
The specific details of a closed session's content are important because votes taken during meetings found to be in violation of the law could be voided, and public officials – in rare cases – could even be charged with a crime.
If the entity closes a meeting without following Open Meetings Act protocols, it could mean the decisions as a result of the closed meeting are invalid. In more extreme cases officials can be charged with misdemeanors and fined $500 if a court finds the Open Meetings Act was violated.
Bloomfield changing its wording
Peter St. Cyr, executive director for New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, told The Daily Times that the Open Meetings Act requires disclosure on the agenda of what topics will be discussed during the closed session.
The law requires the governing body to state why it is going into closed session during the meeting and include that in the minutes, according to the compliance guide.
At the end of every agenda, Bloomfield has had a disclaimer stating: “The City Council may go into Closed Executive Session to discuss pending or threatened litigation pursuant to the provisions of the New Mexico Open Meetings Act adopted by City Council. New Mexico State Statute: 10-15-1(H)(7).”
A recent closed session of the Bloomfield City Council occurred on Feb. 12. The motion to go into closed session stated that the council would be discussing pending or threatened litigation. The topic of the litigation was not mentioned on the agenda, nor is it stated in the minutes.
City attorney Ryan Lane said that will change in the future. Lane reviewed the Open Meetings Act Compliance Guide after speaking with The Daily Times. He said he asked the city clerk to include more specific language on its agenda.
Lane said if there will be a closed session, it will state on the agenda what the closed session will be about. He said the agenda will also state “none” if there will be no closed session.Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.