A San Juan College Board member made allegations Tuesday, Aug. 7, that the board has been acting in violation in the Open Meetings Act. Matthew Tso voted against a plan to redistrict the voting boundaries for College Board members, and later stated it was because the board did not allow for public input on the process.
Election lines are redrawn at least every four years, per the results of the U.S. Census. These new boundaries were discussed during two College Board work sessions, which are at 5 p.m. before the monthly meeting, in a location across campus above the cafeteria.
“San Juan College’s redistricting plan was presented to the board and discussed in two public work sessions on Tuesday, May 1, and Monday, July 9,” College President Dr. Toni Pendergrass said.
Those work sessions were publicized through legal advertising stating that the meetings would be at 5 p.m. on those dates in Room 1616. The topics of discussion, including redistricting was not included in the advertisement.
Pendergrass said the board received the agenda for the work sessions, where no decisions are made, but the bulk of issues are discussed. There was no record of those work session agendas on the college’s website, and minutes from these meetings are not published.
“Those work sessions were not open to the public or the public was not made aware of them and that could run afoul of the Open Government Act,” Tso said.
Pendergrass disagreed with the allegation, saying the meetings were open to the public, and the college was not required by law to have a public hearing to discuss the redrawn lines. During the first work session, Research and Polling Inc. made a presentation to the board in a meeting that began at 5 p.m. and concluded at 7 p.m. The only reference to the redistricting plan in the three paragraphs of meeting minutes stated that Michael Sharp, vice president, Research & Polling Inc., was present.
Russell Litke, vice president for administrative services, was at the meeting and said that Matthew Tso attended after the discussion about the redistricting. “The rest of the board desired to hear the opinion of Matthew Tso, because it affected his district,” he said. Tso did not attend the July 9 session, and reportedly did not speak out against the plan until after his “No” vote during the Aug. 7 meeting.
Tso, who also serves as the chairman of the Central Consolidated School District Board, said he has a vast knowledge of Open Government Laws and in his opinion there was no public comment regarding the redistricting plan. The work session minutes verify that community members and voters were not present during these sessions. That is why Tso said he opposed the plan and wanted more public comment. “This has significant implications affecting the voters. The right to vote is everyone’s basic right and the reapportionment is a public issue. It should not be decided behind closed doors.”
Pendergrass said that all of the board members received a copy of the plan. Any one of those members could have requested a public hearing for public discussion of the plan, but they did not. Instead, according to Pendergrass, all expressed satisfaction with the new boundaries.
Michael Sharp, of Research and Polling, even offered to come back and present the plan in a regularly scheduled board meeting. “The board did not feel that was necessary,” Pendergrass said.
During the Aug. 7 board meeting the new boundaries were not made public and were not shown to the people in the board room. A request for a copy of the new boundaries was made during the meeting, which was provided the next day by fax machine.
When government bodies draw new voting lines it is typical to have several public meetings, as well as a public hearing, regarding the new lines. When Board President Shane Chance was asked whether the College Board received public comment on the plan, he said: “Probably not. There could have been.”
He said there were several different plans and the board “dealt with all the questions we had and there was no opposition to it.”
Tso has alleged the new lines dilute the American Indian voter population in Districts One and Two, the two districts that have Navajo board members. “The lines should have been posted online for everyone to see,” he said, threatening possible litigation “especially if it includes dilution of the minority voters.”
The new boundaries show that the number of American Indian voters in District One went up, but the percentage went down, while the numbers in District Two went down.
Gwyneth Doland, executive director for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said that if Tso’s allegations pan out. litigation would be a possibility. “The college could be putting itself at a very serious risk of having their decisions overturned for improperly conducting meetings,” she said.
Pendergrass said that the meetings are open to the public, and Chance confirmed that they are open.
When Chance was questioned about why the board meets prior to its open public session, he said the board “has always done it that way.”
Chance even said at the opening of the Aug. 7 board meeting that the entire governing body met in a work session prior to the start of the official board meeting, which began 15 minutes later than the 7 p.m. start time. “We try to get all of our work to be done in the work session,” he said.
Why work sessions?
Dave Eppich, vice president for student services, said the work sessions began earlier this year as a way to educate the College Board on issues facing institutions of higher learning. “There used to be very few work sessions. Now, it’s almost become a matter of course that we have work sessions before the meeting,” he said. The informal sessions are used to discuss complex issues, and they are open to the public.
“This board is very active and they want to be engaged,” Pendergrass said.
According to the board’s policies and procedures on the San Juan College website, “All meetings at which the Board shall formulate policy, discuss College business, or take any action within the authority of or delegated authority of the Board, shall be open to the public at all times except as otherwise provided in the Constitution of the State of New Mexico or the provisions of the Open Meetings Act.”
The policy also states that minutes from those meetings will be kept. “The minutes of each regular, special, emergency meeting, or any work session shall be recorded and include a minimum of the following: the date, time, and place of the meeting; the names of all members of the Board in attendance and a list of those absent; a statement of what proposals were considered; a record of any decisions made by the Board and of how each member voted at each vote.”
The minutes from the public meetings, but not the work sessions, were found online. Pendergrass said the minutes along with the agendas would be made available to anyone requesting them. A copy of both the May 1 and July 9 work session were given to the Tri-City Tribune and they consisted of two to three short paragraphs. A request for a recording of the meetings was made, but they are not recorded.
According to the Foundation for Open Government’s website, a meeting by an elected board is a meeting. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s called a work session, retreat, training seminar or phone tree — under the Open Meetings Act, a meeting occurs whenever a quorum of a public body:
• formulates public policy,
• discusses public business, or
• takes action.”
The quorum – “generally half the members plus one” — doesn’t need to be in the same room to hold a meeting; “they might discuss public business in a series of e-mails or phone calls, over several days. This is called a rolling quorum, and it’s illegal unless the participants follow all the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.”
Paul Gessing from the Rio Grande Foundation, a government watchdog group, said the board’s actions “seem highly irregular.”
Elected bodies must conduct business in a public setting. “This is basic government transparency – the ability of the public to get information,” he continued. “They are blatantly trying to seemingly avoid public scrutiny.”