Members of the Taos Town Council insisted Tuesday (Aug. 13) discussions among council members outside public meetings are not a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Questions about a possible violation appeared on the council’s agenda after town attorney Brian James took issue with a July 24 article in The Taos News. The article stated four council members a reporter contacted said they would vote to support the terms laid out in a letter sent to the county by Taos Mayor Darren Córdova in an effort to resolve a dispute over emergency dispatch.
James said Tuesday he was concerned that the use of the word “vote” in the article could be skewed by critics of the town’s decision to move dispatch to the command center as deciding public policy outside of an open meeting.
After James raised the issue last month, the paper raised its own concerns about conversations Córdova said he was having with councilors behind the scenes. The New Mexico Open Meetings Act requires that discussions among members of a governing board related to public policy take place in a public meeting.
Córdova said at Tuesday’s meeting that he regularly receives calls from council members asking about the status of town projects or passing along concerns raised by constituents. “Those conversations do happen, but never ‘Well, are you supporting this or are you not supporting it?’” Córdova said.
That statement came less than three weeks after Córdova sent an email to The Taos News stating it is “absolutely not against the law to have conversations with fellow elected officials and getting their opinions on any given issue.”
“It is my responsibility to work with those councilors and hopefully address their concerns so that when this item [negotiations with the county] comes to an open meeting for a vote, they will look at it favorably,” Córdova wrote in his email.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s Open Meetings Act Compliance Guide notes that a series of one-on-one discussions by phone or email among a majority of the board (known as a rolling quorum) is illegal, even if the specifics of how a councilor will vote are not expressly mentioned. “The use of a rolling quorum to discuss public business or take action violates the Act because it constitutes a meeting of a quorum of the public body’s members outside of a properly noticed, public meeting,” the guide reads.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Michael Silva said he never tells his fellow councilors how he will vote outside of a meeting. “I never, ever participated with any other councilman, asking them, nor them asking me, how I was going to vote on any issue,” Silva said. “That just doesn’t happen here.”
Councilor Andrew Gonzáles agreed. “I’ve never been polled by any one of my peers to say ‘Will you support, can you vote, or will you vote,’” he said.
James previously told The Taos News that he believe those discussions described in Córdova’s email are “general political give and take” and do not amount to a violation of the law. James said his opinion was that if the board was “arriving at a consensus behind the scenes,” it would be a violation.
“I’m very confident that the town fulfills its responsibilities under the Open Meetings Act and the Inspection of Public Records Act,” James said after hearing the councilors comments Tuesday.
To gauge the extent to which conversations are happening outside public meetings, The Taos News has requested records of any phone calls, email, texts or other written communication among the mayor and Town Council, as well as between town manager Oscar Rodríguez and the council, during a three-month period earlier this year.
The Taos News has also notified the Attorney General of its concerns over private discussions among councilors.