Editorial: Public officials make too many deals in private

They say the words, claiming "transparency" and "the public's right to know" are priorities.

But too many public officials are conducting public business in private.

They call it "executive session," the part of the public meeting when city councilors or county commissioners say some magic words and then sneak off into a private room where they talk about who knows what, which often costs taxpayers money.

It happens in Clovis, Portales and just about every other community across New Mexico.

In Curry County, commissioners frequently adjourn for "Discussion of limited personnel matters, threatened and pending litigations."

That means elected officials can talk in secret about accusations against the county or its employees and it can secretly make those accusations go away by agreeing to give someone permission to pay truckloads of money to the accusers without public scrutiny.

In Curry County, for example, a recent Clovis Media Inc. investigation reveals more than a dozen lawsuits have been settled in these kind of backroom discussions since 2005.

County officials say they're not spending taxpayer dollars, that settlements are coming from the county's insurance company … as if our tax dollars are somehow not paying those rising insurance costs.

Two unrelated settlements approved but never announced in a public meeting netted Clovis jail inmates $450,000 each. Many of the other Curry County cases were settled for amounts not revealed publicly.

Curry County is not the only public entity in New Mexico conducting public business in the dark. In a letter received recently from Curry County Manager Lance Pyle, we're assured the city of Clovis, city of Portales, Roosevelt County and other regional entities use similar "strict language of the statute" in announcing their executive sessions.

In other words, they are all (supposedly) complying with the letter of the law as they try to prevent taxpayers from finding out what's going on behind closed doors.

Our letter to the county asked it simply provide lawsuit case numbers when commissioners discuss litigation. Armed with that information, the public might at least be able to learn allegations being made against the county and offer feedback as to whether it should fight or pay.

Without knowing the topic of the secret discussion, we're all at the mercy of our public officials to make good decisions without public feedback.

Pyle's letter reports Curry County's attorney "advises against making any modifications" in policy for announcing executive sessions.

New Mexico law says some meetings may be closed if the topic is stated with "reasonable specificity." We seriously doubt "Discussion of limited personnel matters, threatened and pending litigations," is specific enough to meet legal standards.

That debate aside, there is no law anywhere that prevents a public entity from telling taxpayers it's been sued and representatives are thinking about settling the claim.

They don't tell us because they don't want us to know and they don't want their actions scrutinized.

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