Taos County’s attorney told commissioners they should no longer meet in a quorum to have lunch, because “you have no control over accusations someone might make.”
Last week, The Taos News published a story about the commissioners’ periodic lunch meetings, in which a quorum of commissioners meet at a local restaurant and eat together.
The New Mexico Open Meetings Act mandates that meetings of public bodies should be open to the public, and that the public should be given sufficient notice in advance of any meeting in which officials plan to discuss public business. If a quorum of a public body, such as the Taos County Commission, plans to meet in an unofficial setting, such as a local restaurant, Open Meetings Act guidelines do not apply so long as they do not discuss any public business.
County Attorney Robert Malone said he feels the commission is within the guidelines of the law, even though other public bodies, such as the Taos Municipal School District Board, post notices whenever a quorum of a body might be in the same place. Taos County does not do this.
Superintendent of the district Rod Weston said the school board’s attorney advised them to post notices on their website whenever a quorum of the board might be together.
Malone advised the commission at its meeting Tuesday (Nov. 19) to stop going to lunch because any time a quorum is out together, it’s easy for a member of the public to claim he or she heard the commissioners discussing county matters.
“We’re obviously in a gray area here,” Malone said.
Malone didn’t think posting a notice in advance of a quorum’s meeting would solve the problem because the notice doesn’t protect public bodies from accusations. Even if the body posts a notice that a quorum could be together, that quorum is still not legally allowed to discuss public business because it is not an official meeting.
“It would not do away with the risk factor,” Malone said. “Someone could still accuse you.”
Commissioners at the meeting all seemed to agree that they were not doing anything wrong by meeting for lunch from time to time.
“It feels good to be able to break bread with your colleagues,” Commissioner Gabe Romero said.
Commissioner Larry Sanchez argued that the lunches support the local economy.
“Commissioners have been very professional,” he said. “We’ve also been supporting the local eating establishments in town.”
Commissioner Tom Blankenhorn insisted the commissioners discuss no public business at their meetings, and said that the commissioners are never protected from the public hurling accusations at them. He said the accusations don’t worry him so long as he’s confident he’s done everything legally.
“We’re never insulated from people making accusations,” he said. “We do not engage in the back and forth that could be considered discussing public business.”