A simple reminder on transparency

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It’s not easy being an elected official in a small town. Chances are, you grew up with most of your constituents, know their parents and grandparents, shopped at their stores and cheered on their kids and yours at local sporting event.
People aren’t surprised to see the mayor, municipal judge or a couple of councilors out and about, doing mundane things such buying cat food. None of those things are problematic. People have to live their lives and make a living.
But what happens when a majority of a governing body, a quorum, shows up at an event?
The Los Lunas Tigers’ recent state championship probably had most every elected official in Valencia County out and on their feet cheering. Were there three or more members of any governing body at that game? Smart money says there was.
Smart money also says they were too busy rooting for the home team to give each other much consideration.
You might be asking why all this concern about how many elected officials are where at the same time?
Because there are laws against that type of thing. Yes, the state’s Open Meetings Act requires that any time a quorum of a body meets to discuss public business — and that does indeed mean two councilors and a mayor — that meeting has to be noticed so their constituents can attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings.
As we said, it is highly doubtful that any public business was discussed at the big game. But what about at the ground-breaking for a  school swimming pool? Or at the meeting of another governing body?
Two recent incidences have raised concerns here at the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
The first was when the mayor of Belen and two councilors attended the ground breaking for the new Belen High School swimming pool.
The second was when three village of Los Lunas councilors attended the town of Peralta’s council meeting.
The officials from Belen did not speak or did not participate in the ground breaking, but they did sit together at the ceremony.
On the other hand, two of the Los Lunas councilors offered information on a proposed hospital in Los Lunas at the Peralta meeting, a matter of public business if there ever was one.
Over the years, the state’s attorney general’s office has offered the opinion that it is impossible to ask or expect elected officials to completely avoid each other in a social context.
And we acknowledge that in a community the size of Valencia County, demanding that elected officials eschew social gatherings and Friday night football games simply because they might make eye contact with a fellow public servant is extreme.
But it is a simple matter to give public notice that a quorum of officials from a governing body may attend a function, especially if the body has been invited to a special occasion. The public has been told and the body politic is in the clear.
We remind our elected officials that they are under scrutiny. Not just by us, as a duty of the Fourth Estate, but by the public. Citizens have become more and more savvy and aware of transparency laws meant to preserve their rights and the integrity of those in office.
While most times, a happenstance meeting of a quorum is benign. But how easy would it be to slip into bad habits and casually discuss issues coming up at a future meeting?
How easy it would be to come to an agreement and how easy it would be to simply attend the next public meeting and vote because you had already made up your mind?
Dirty politics and back-room deals are a specter that lingers over the Land of Enchantment and Valencia County as well.
We remind all our public officials that their constituents deserve better and caution them on committing the appearance of impropriety.
For as we all know, it’s not necessarily what actually happens that causes trouble. It’s what the people think you did that brings strife.