Protesters pack commission chambers as Aztec considers city attorney contract
Lawyers who complained about previous decision hired
AZTEC — As they voted earlier this week to rescind a legal contract they had awarded to the Unsicker Law Firm and instead contract with Steve Murphy and Tyson Gobble, members of the Aztec City Commission hoped to put to rest allegations that their actions during a Sept. 10 meeting had violated both the New Mexico Open Meetings Act and the New Mexico Procurement Code.
Meanwhile, protesters gathered for the Oct. 1 meeting hoped that the allegations first made by Murphy on Sept. 23 in a letter to the city would be enough to lead to petition for a recall election. Murphy also sent the letter to the New Mexico Attorney General's Office and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
Only a handful of chairs remained open by the time the meeting started shortly after 5:30 p.m. The City Commission once again went into closed session to consider awarding the contract.
Murphy alleged that the Sept. 10 meeting was wrongfully closed because the agenda cited sole source procurement as the reason for the closed session. The Oct. 1 agenda cited the same section of the Open Meetings Act but a different part of the section. The exception cited on Oct. 1 was for contract negotiations in relation to sealed proposals.
Murphy responds to city decision
"I'm glad the commission has decided to follow the procurement code, but I am still of the opinion that they violated the Open Meetings Act," Murphy said when reached by phone on Oct. 2.
He alleged the closed session on Oct. 1 also violated the law. He cited an example in the New Mexico Attorney General's compliance guide that states, "The governing body of a municipality is considering a contract to retain an attorney to represent the municipality on a part-time basis. The attorney is to be an independent contractor and not an employee of the municipality. This paragraph does not authorize closing a meeting of the governing body to select an attorney because the matter to be considered does not concern a public employee."
However, that example is in a different section of the Open Meetings Act than the section cited on the agenda.
Murphy said he spoke with the city's outside legal counsel, Geno Zamora, on Oct. 2 and they have differing opinions about whether the Oct. 1 meeting violated the law. Murphy said an investigation by the AG's Office will determine if the city did violate the Open Meetings Act.
He said he is still deciding if he and Gobble will accept the contract, as many residents are encouraging them to do. If they do, he said he looks forward to working with the city.
Protesters wait through closed session
The closed session did not deter protesters, who remained outside the building waiting for the meeting to be opened. The protesters held signs demanding Snover's resignation. Other signs stated, “We are always watching” and “Aztec Take Your Town Back.” Another sign played off the children’s game Red Rover and stated, “Red Snover, Red Snover, Your Reign is Over.”
Many of the Aztec residents who attended the meeting have been wanting to recall Mayor Victor Snover, and commissioners Rosalyn Fry and Mark Lewis for several months. The movement began when the Snover, Fry and Lewis voted against making Aztec a Second Amendment Sanctuary City.
But the residents were unable to petition for a recall election at the time because a recall election can only happen if there has been some sort of malfeasance or if a law has been broken.
“It started with the Second Amendment, and it’s just progressed from there,” said Angie LeGrand,one of those seeking the ouster of the three officials.
She said the news that the City Commission may have violated the Open Meetings Act was the most recent development that made her concerned.
LeGrand said she hopes Snover will resign without a recall election, but LeGrand, Diane Hathcock and Colby King said they believe they may have enough of a case to begin the process for a recall election.
“We need a mayor of Aztec that is for the people of Aztec,” LeGrand said.
Although the City Commission met in closed session for more than an hour, the protesters packed the commission chambers both before and after the closed session.
Commission unanimously awards contract to Murphy and Gobble
At the end of the meeting, the City Commission voted unanimously to rescind its September decision and to award the contract to Murphy and Gobble. Their offer had been ranked first by the city’s evaluation committee.
Nicci Unsicker of the Unsicker Law Firm has been serving as the city’s attorney, but the city brought on Zamora of the Santa Fe-based law firm Ortiz and Zamora to provide legal council during the procurement process.
Snover said the City Commission met with Zamora and the evaluation committee in the closed session.
"We have talked in closed session. We have discussed some of the issues that we were concerned about," Snover said after the commission came out of closed session. Snover made the motion to rescind the contract awarded to the Unsicker Law Firm on Sept. 10.
Commissioner Austin Randall, who was not present at the Sept. 10 meeting, said he trusted the evaluation committee’s recommendation.
"That's why we have this procurement process," he said. "That's why we go through this process and evaluate the firms, and I trust staff's recommendations on matters such as this."
Snover said he supports the staff's decisions and the process that was followed while evaluating the proposals.
"I do think that there is some retooling, perhaps, of our (request for proposals) process that we need to consider — case-by-case kind of thing," Snover said.
He did not go into specifics when asked after the meeting about how he believes the process should be retooled.
"I think it needs to be more specific to the needs of Aztec," he said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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