AG attorneys lead training on NM sunshine laws

James Fenton
jfenton@daily-times.com
New Mexico Assistant Attorney General Joseph Dworak gives a presentation on the state's sunshine laws Friday at SunRay Park & Casino.

FARMINGTON – "Let the sunshine in."

That was the message from Joseph Dworak and Mona Valicenti, attorneys from New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas' office. On Friday, the two led a free public training session over state sunshine laws. The training session was held in a conference room at SunRay Park & Casino on Friday.

The two attorneys ran through the rules in the state's Open Meetings Act and the Inspection of Public Records Act, and covered some exceptions and complications that often ensnare public bodies like municipalities and public entities.

"(Public) notice (for public meetings) is one of the biggest things that we see in regard to complaints and one of the most important requirements under OMA," Dworak said.

Agendas for public meetings must clearly list specific business items to be discussed, he said.

"The easiest one that we always have problems with is 'personnel matters.' I have no idea what that is," Dworak said. "Are we talking about contract custodial staff or are we talking about the executive? A city councilor? Are we talking about a school superintendent? A substitute teacher? I don't know. That's not a term to use ... the public needs to reasonably understand what type of business will be discussed."

New Mexico Assistant Attorney General Joseph Dworak discusses the specifics of the state's sunshine laws Friday at SunRay Park & Casino.

Dworak said the legislative intent behind the laws is to recognize that public bodies are supposed to be transparent because they conduct public business. Secret meetings are prohibited. No action on an agenda item can occur if a change to the item was made within 72 hours prior to the meeting. When votes are taken, it should be clear how each member at a meeting voted.

The approximately 50 people who attended the seminar included state police officials, Kirtland town trustees, San Juan County officials and members of Navajo Nation committees.

Cindy Jim, an Indian Education Affairs-Johnson-O'Malley Program board member, came to the meeting with Rannita Henderson, Johnson-O'Malley Program committee president. Jim asked Dworak if the Navajo Nation is subject to state sunshine laws.

It is not, Dworak said.

Dworak said the attorney general's office gets a lot of questions about recording devices at public meetings (they're allowed) and whether someone can call into a public meeting on a cell phone to make quorum (OK, as long as everyone in the meeting room can hear the caller).

Valicenti's presentation on the IPRA, which she said originated with two paragraphs of law in 1947, drew more questions over what constitutes a reasonable records request.

Valicenti reminded those present that a representative government is dependent on an informed electorate and that the courts have favored the right to access consistently in cases in recent years.

Are text messages or emails concerning public matters subject to public inspection? Yes, she said.

Several members of the audience asked about the turn-around time allowed to comply with records requests. Others asked about repetitive requests for the same records or requests that are voluminous and may cause a burden on the entity to produce the documents.

If the requests are not "excessively broad or burdensome," she said, "that's the cost of doing business to allow for the inspection," Valicenti said.

"You need to remember when you get an inspection of public records request, this is your duty to provide records to those requesting access," she said. "The right to know is the rule, and secrecy is the exception. So unless there's an exception on the books to deny access of a public record, public access has to be provided. Right? This is transparency. The attorney general is very big on that, and he's very willing to enforce the act if public bodies aren't (in compliance). "

Balderas' office, which employs about 200​ people in three cities, Dworak said after the meeting, sends attorneys like Dworak and Valicenti around the state every month to deliver free seminars on the laws.

For more information on the state's sunshine laws or to view a digital compliance guide for OMA or IPRA, go to nmag.gov/oma-and-ipra-nm-sunshine-laws.aspx.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.