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Sheriff's wife files OMA complaint

De Baca County News of Fort Sumner, New Mexico

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Conner claims Commissions decisions on SO budget made behind closed doors

The wife of De Baca County Sheriff Scott Conner has filed a complaint with the Attorney General accusing the De Baca County Commission with a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Kimberly Conner, who is employed by the De Baca County Communications Department, filed the complaint in reference to Commission meetings on July 24 and 28. In the complaint, Conner cited eight potential violations of the OMA, including:

The agenda did not include a list of specific items the public body intended to discuss or transact at the meeting, or the items listed and acted upon were not listed with reasonable specificity.

The public body took action on items that were not listed on the agenda.

The minutes of the meeting did not contain a description of the substance of all proposals considered during the meeting or a record of any decision made and votes taken.

The public body did not follow the required closing procedures to close a meeting.

The public body closed the meeting to discuss an issue not covered by one of the exceptions in the OMA.

Matters not stated in the motion to close the meeting were discussed in the closed session.

A quorum of the public body formulated policy, discussed public business, or took action outside of an open meeting.

A "rolling quorum" was used to discuss public business.

In response to the complaint, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer N. Salazar notified the County Commission in an Oct. 19 letter that the complaint has been filed, and requested information related to the meeting.

"The Attorney General is charged with the investigation and enforcement of the OMA pursuant to NMSA 1978, Section 10-15-3 (B)," the letter states. "In order for us to properly evaluate the allegations contained in Mrs. Conner's complaint, we ask that you provide this Office with the following information:"

A detailed and complete response to the allegations contained in Ms. Conner's complaint.

All documents supporting your response, including agendas and meeting minutes from the July 24 and July 28, 2015 meetings.

Any audio/video recording of the July 24 and July 28 meetings.

Indicate if the Commission's attorney was present for the executive session on July 24 to discuss pending litigation.

A copy of any budget decisions reviewed and/or passed at the July 24 and 28 meetings.

Kimberly Conner's complaint stems from a budget workshop conducted by the County Commission on July 24, 2015, and a subsequent regular meeting on July 28. At the July 28 meeting, the Commission made final changes to the county's 2015-16 operating budget, which included a 3 percent raise for all county employees outside the Sheriff's Department, and raises of 10 to 16.7 percent for Sheriff's personnel.

Sheriff Scott Conner accused the Commission of acting in an "underhanded" manner following a public hearing and final approval on the final budget. Conner made the comments after learning the 2015-16 budget includes funding for four deputy positions, rather than five.

The discussion began when Conner sought permission to advertise for an open deputy slot. Asked by Commission Chairman Adolfo Lucero which position was open, Conner said he planned to fill a spot vacated by the departure of Deputy Stephen Gallegos. Conner added that his department had originally two positions open before the county's budget work began, but one of those positions was eliminated during budget deliberations.

He said the original deputy count was six, including four paid by the County and two paid by the Village of Fort Sumner, under the interagency agreement for law enforcement between the two entities.

Lucero said the budget, unanimously approved just minutes earlier, was based on the Sheriff's Department operating with four deputies Based on those staffing levels, the budget had included significant raises for deputies and increased overtime.

Conner said he had given up a deputy position and a part-time secretary position prior as part of budget deliberations, but was unaware the Commission had cut another deputy position "without input from the Sheriff."

"Adolfo told you at the budget workshop," said Commissioner Becky Harris, referring to a special meeting of the Commission July 24.

"This is the first I'ye heard of it," said Conner emphatically.

Lucero responded the Commission could revisit the manpower issue later in the budget year, but that it had been understood during the July 24 budget workshop that four deputies would be funded.

"In the workshop it was clearly stated that was the way the budget was built," Lucero said. "All of the raises in this budget are based on that."

Lucero referred to a three-percent, across-the-board pay increase for all county personnel, with the exception of the Sheriff's Department, which received hikes of 10 to 16.7 percent.

"Had I been told I would have voiced my opinion," Conner said. "I cannot run the Sheriff's Office on four deputies."

"This was an underhanded action by the board of County Commissioners and it was done behind my back," Conner added.

"We discussed it the meeting Friday and you were there," said Commissioner Harris.

Conner responded that the Commission had met in executive session for an hour during the special meeting, "without it being on the agenda, which is a violation of the Open Meetings Act."

Lucero responded that the executive session had been to discuss "pending litigation."

"You're not privy to that so you shouldn't comment on it," Lucero told Conner.

The agenda for the meeting, which was required to be posted at least 72 hours prior to the meeting and was e-mailed to the De Baca County News, had only two agenda items listed:' a budget workshop and adjournment. The Open Meetings Act requires all executive sessions to be listed as action items on an agenda because they require a vote of the public body. As described by Conner, the County Commission's closed session would appear to have been a clear violation of the Open

Meetings Act.

Lucero told the De Baca County News that after the meeting, he discussed the matter with the District Attorney and admitted that he had failed to make sure the executive session was on the agenda for the July 24 budget workshop. He also said the Commission had not discussed anything in the executive session that was not related to pending or threatened litigation.

"Technically, it was a violation (of the OMA)," Lucero said. "And I have called the DA and told him about it," Lucero said. "We will provide all information to the Attorney General as requested."

"But (the July 24 closed session) had no effect on the Sheriff's Department's budget," Lucero added. "All of those decisions were made in the open (on July 28)."

In her complaint, Kimberly Conner states that "it was clear by the language and actions of the (Commission) that decisions regarding budget were made in Executive Session."

She also stated that in conversations with "Village Officials later in the week," she was told that certain budget decisions were made during that meeting. It was clear that those decisions were made behind closed doors during the illegal executive session."

Lucero also said he disagrees with Kimberly Conner's description of the Commission's action in her complaint, and noted that Mrs. Conner did not attend either the July 24 or July 28 meetings and did not witness any of the Commission actions on which her claims are based.

Lucero said the Sheriff's Department has been treated as well or better than any other County department. He said the Department has been allowed to move into a larger, refurbished office space in the Courthouse Annex and has new furniture, new vehicles and upgrades in technology.

"And the raises the deputies received were far greater percentagewise than any of our other employees," Lucero said. "I don't see where (the sheriff) has been unfairly treated."

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Original Publication Date: November 5, 2015

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