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Published in Print: February 13, 2002, as Criminal Charges Filed Against School Board For Its Closed Meetings

Criminal Charges Filed Against School Board For Its Closed Meetings

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In an action that may be unprecedented in New Mexico, two current and three former school board members in Las Cruces have been charged with four criminal counts each of violating the state Open Meetings Act.

State Attorney General Patricia Madrid filed criminal complaints Jan. 31 against board President Mary F. Tucker, board member Jeanette H. Dickerson, and former board members Ruben B. Alvarado, Clarence H. Fielder, and William Soules for approving $390,000 in employment incentives for then-Superintendent Jesse L. Gonzales in private meetings.

The board members, according to court documents, did not give public notice or publicly record the approval of a number of contracts for Mr. Gonzales, who recently became the superintendent of the Compton Unified School District in California. Mr. Gonzales has not been accused of wrongdoing.

"Government that operates behind closed doors, excluding the public, is not a government in which the people will have confidence," Attorney General Madrid said in a statement. "As Oliver Wendell Holmes said many years ago ... 'Sunshine is the best disinfectant.' Regrettably, the sun did not shine on these important actions."

Violations of New Mexico's Open Meetings Act are misdemeanors that carry $500 fines. The current and former board members, who admit they conducted the meetings in closed session but say they considered such privacy proper given the matters under discussion, are scheduled to be arraigned in Las Cruces District Court on Feb. 18.

What the Law Says

According to the attorney general's statement, the five individuals charged violated the state law in February and June 2000, and again in February and June 2001.

In 2000, the board approved a $250,000 life-insurance policy at a cost of $70,000 and a yearly salary of $120,686 for Mr. Gonzales, according to court documents. The following year, the documents say, the board agreed to supplement his contract with $55,000 in bonuses, provide him with a $300,000 life-insurance policy that cost almost $137,000, and extend his contract to 2004 with a yearly salary of $130,342.

The attorney general also indicated that she would try to collect at least some of the money that the board had allegedly approved illegally for Mr. Gonzales.

"My office will separately also be reviewing the civil enforcement remedies that may be available for returning public money unlawfully spent by these board members," Ms. Madrid said.

Ms. Tucker, the board president, said she and the other members approved the contracts because they were trying to keep Mr. Gonzales, who was being courted by other school systems. And they did so in closed session because they thought they were supposed to, she said. The board has approved superintendent contracts and incentives in private for at least 12 years, she said, and never had a problem until now.

"I had no clue that how we did it was wrong," Ms. Tucker said last week. "I thought you did the goal-setting and personnel action not in open meeting. If anyone had said, 'You know, you're not doing it right,' we would have fixed it. Now, I'm waiting to be burned at the stake."

Ms. Dickerson added that under the leadership of Mr. Gonzales and the board, the 22,000-student school system had improved markedly.

Late last year, the current school board asked Mr. Gonzales to return $390,000 and passed a lengthy resolution admitting to 17 violations of the Open Meetings Act over the past two years. Mr. Gonzales declined the request. In a January letter from his lawyer, he listed four pages of district accomplishments during his 11-year tenure, and said that he had accepted the benefits and salary "in good faith."

In an interview last week, Mr. Gonzales also defended the board members. "These people are not criminals by any means. There was no intent to defraud the public or anybody else," he said. "They're the most well-intentioned people I've ever worked with. There were errors of omission, not by commission."

Controversy over alleged board impropriety erupted last year, when one of the current members, Chuck Davis, questioned the board's actions and asked for further investigation. The state auditor began investigating the board's actions with Mr. Gonzales. Then the state attorney general's office and the local district attorney became involved in the case.

Ms. Tucker and Ms. Dickerson also face further scrutiny. A community group, Citizens for Responsible Representation, has repeatedly demanded that the two board members resign.

The group collected enough signatures for a recall election and the two board members will face voters again on April 2.

Earl Nissen, co-chair of the group, said, "They cannot convince us ever that this was unintentional."

Vol. 21, Issue 22, Page 6

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