Column: Los Alamos School Board and the Law

Publisher/Editor, The Amarillo Independent

Whenever I hear or read about a public official, elected or on the taxpayer payroll, blather about the role of the media, I can generally anticipate the official is unhappy that a journalist didn’t shill for him. Oh, you know. The story is “negative.” I also easily conclude the official doesn’t know much about the First Amendment.

Such is the case with Jim Hall’s impotent little screed posted Tuesday.

Let’s start with the disavowal of authority. Hall wrote, “The following comments represent my opinion, as the president of the Los Alamos School Board, and are not an official statement of the Los Alamos Public School Board (the Board).”

But Hall’s comments are the statement of the board president and he proffers them as such. If Hall wanted to separate himself from the board, he should not have indicated he was the board president and been clear the letter was his personal opinion. The editor could have added Hall’s board role without it reflecting on Hall’s attempt to weasel-word his political role.

But that is the least of the issue with Hall’s letter.

“First, the LAPS Board does not vote nor does it take any action in executive session. All votes are in open session and on items on the agenda,” simply parrots the New Mexico Open Meetings Act. It’s CYA and falls into the “me thinks he protests too much” category.

Only the most naive person would believe that the individual positions weren’t clear to Superintendent Gene Schmidt and if they weren’t, the proper question is “Why, a year from retirement, would Schmidt throw in the towel early?”

For her March 4 story, “School Board Divided 3-2 to Retain Superintendent,” Los Alamos Daily Post Publisher Carol Clark did what any solid journalist should do. She asked questions and got a quote from Schmidt that confirmed the board turned tail on the superintendent. Thursday’s story by Bonnie Gordon reported the board chose new officers “within” 10 minutes without discussion is evidence the deal was wired behind the scenes. And only the most naive person would believe some form of agreement and thus a rolling quorum lay at the base of the vote and as such is a violation of the spirit if not the terms of the open meetings act. If this raises a question about the Los Alamos School Board’s integrity, so be it.

For Hall’s letter 7½ hours later calling Clark’s story “speculative” flies in the face of reported facts and is no more than an outrageous attempt to intimidate the media. It is also stupid and puerile.

Of course, there is a larger issue at stake. New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act, like many other states, provides for personnel issues to be exempt from disclosure. The putative reason is to protect the “privacy” rights of a public employee; but in truth, it also protects the employees’ bosses from accountability for their supervisory actions. The New Mexico law, however, has a provision that permits the employee to waive those privacy provisions. I saw that done many years ago in Española when an employee asked for a public hearing over his employment status. Schmidt could constructively do the same thing by releasing a more detailed and forthright statement.

All this, however, begs the question: People who supervise a public payroll and employees on the taxpayer dime need to be held accountable and the personnel exemption sabotages the public policy purpose of any sunshine law. So, why are public officials given cover at the cost of accountability?

I think we all know the answer to that question.