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District pay raise vote lacked transparency

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LAPS: Board may have violated Open Meetings Act

By Whitney Jones

The Los Alamos Public School District Board of Education may have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it voted for employee pay raises during a special meeting last month.

The public notice of the board’s May 24 special meeting had no mention of pay raises for certified and non-certified negotiated school employees nor did the agenda presented before the meeting.

But despite the lack of public notice that the board would formally take up the issues of employee pay raises, and also that question being asked of the board by Board President Kevin Honnell and the Los Alamos Monitor, the board voted in favor of a 3-percent pay raise.

The Act, however, states “meeting notices shall include an agenda containing a list of specific items of business to be discussed or transacted at the meeting or information on how the public may obtain a copy of such an agenda.”
The public notice had no mention of pay raises for certified and non-certified negotiated school employees nor did the agenda presented before the meeting.

The Act further states “any meetings at which the discussion or adoption of any proposed resolution, rule, regulation or formal action occurs and at which a majority or quorum of the body is in attendance, and any closed meetings, shall be held only after reasonable notice to the public,” and “except for emergency matters, a public body shall take action only on items appearing on the agenda. For purposes of unforeseen circumstances that, if not addressed immediately by the public body, will likely result in injury or damage to persons or property or substantial financial loss to the public body.”

Even Board member Melanie McKinley — who voted in favor of the increases — stated she was “not comfortable with the issues not being on the agenda” and said that board member Dawn Venhaus — who was absent from the meeting — would have likely wanted to attend the meeting in person or via phone had she known that pay raises were going to be voted on.

But School Superintendent Gene Schmidt argued the vote was an amendment that fell under the auspices of the budget.

Commentary by the Attorney General’s Office states, “The agenda must contain ‘a list of specific items of business to be discussed or transacted at the meeting.’ This requirement ensures that interested members of the public are given reasonable notice about the topics a public body plans on discussing or addressing at a meeting. Generally, a public body should not describe agenda items in broad or vague terms. Compliance with this requirement is particularly important when a public body intends to act on an agenda item.”

New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Gwyneth Doland took issue with the Board’s “reasonable notice” to the public regarding its intention to vote on pay raises for employees.

“Pay raises or voting on the salaries of public employees is an issue which the public has a substantial interest and a really transparent process would give the public time to consider this issue, show up at the meeting and give their input,” Doland said.

A formal complaint was sent to the state Attorney General’s Office, which renders opinions on open government violations.

“No resolution, rule, regulation, ordinance or action of any board, commission, committee or other policymaking body shall be valid unless taken or made at a meeting held in accordance with the requirements of (the state Open Meetings Act),” the law states.

In response to the complaint, the board approved a resolution June 28 changing the May 24 agenda to include the pay raises as well as the minutes from that meeting.

“Changing the agenda after the fact is not cool,” Doland said.

She said District employees’ pay raises could also be in jeopardy because should the Attorney General’s Office determine the vote was illegal, that would render the vote void, and the board would have to take up the issue again in another public meeting.

The Attorney General’s Office will likely render an opinion later this year.