Belen land decision violated law, AG says

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Belen councilors violated the Open Meetings Act when they failed to vote on a $619,000 land purchase in a public meeting, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office says.

 

Belen councilors violated the Open Meetings Act when they failed to vote on a $619,000 land purchase in a public meeting, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office says.

The July 12 determination came in response to a complaint filed by the News-Bulletin in February that said the city should have taken a public vote on the purchase.

In January, the city paid a private land owner $619,386.96 in taxpayer funds for about 14 acres meant to become a retention pond to help alleviate flooding along Camino del Llano.

The determination said the council should “revisit the matter of the purchase of the Camino del Llano property and vote to authorize or ratify the purchase” at its next public meeting, which is Monday, July 19.

But Mary Lucy Baca, the city’s interim city manager, said that another vote would likely take place Aug. 2 instead of at the city’s next meeting. She said the current agenda is full and has been finalized to give councilors a chance to look at items in advance.

The act says agendas “shall be available to the public at least 24 hours prior to the meeting” except in emergency matters.

According to the determination, City Attorney Norm McDonald said, the council violated the act by not voting on the purchase in public. He said councilors delegated former Mayor Ronnie Torres the authority to take certain steps necessary to acquire the property during a Dec. 7 executive session, a meeting held behind closed doors. City officials have said “they didn’t want to get the word out” that the land was for sale for fear the price might have sky-rocketed.

“While we are cognizant of the fact that the deal may (have fallen) through, at a minimum the council should have voted in public session to delegate the mayor its authority to negotiate the purchase terms without identifying the subject property until closing,” said Sally Malavé, an assistant attorney general with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.

McDonald said the ratification of the purchase was put on the agenda of the Feb. 8 meeting after Torres and former City Manager Sally Garley “realized” the purchase had not been voted on in public.

The motion passed, but the meeting’s minutes do not indicate whether the motion passed unanimously, and do not show how each member voted, which is also in violation of the act.

The determination said the council had other violations of the act that include motions to close meetings and minutes of its Oct. 5 and Dec. 7 meetings. The document said corrective action should include discussion of the violations and that meeting minutes should identify legal authority for closing each meeting, the subject matter discussed at each closed session and any action taken as a result of its discussion in closed session. Also, how each member voted on a particular action.

Mayor Rudy Jaramillo said there needs to be transparency and open government with his administration.

“We want the public to know what’s going on,” said Jaramillo, who was part of the previous council. “That’s who put us in (office). If I’m a citizen, I want to know the decisions being made that have an impact on me.”

Councilor Lorenzo Carrillo said the council must move on from previous decisions. He said he would like to see the 14 acres offered up for a new hospital site as discussed at the Valencia County Commission meeting in June.

“As far as I’m concerned, the issue is passed,” Carrillo said. “That was done by the previous council. But we have the land and have to move forward.”

 


Contact Brent Ruffner


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.