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City answers local complaint about alleged Open Meetings Act violation

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Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 8:00 pm

In a state Attorney General’s office investigation, the City of Rio Rancho has responded to a complaint accusing four city councilors of violating the Open Meetings Act.

In an October complaint written to the Attorney General’s office, Rio Rancho resident Tonya Cantu claimed that councilors Lonnie Clayton, Tim Crum, Chuck Wilkins and Mark Scott violated the Open Meetings Act through a rolling quorum.

The act prohibits a quorum of members from a public governing body — four members or more, in Rio Rancho’s case — from meeting privately to discuss government business. A rolling quorum is when members don’t gather at once, but a quorum participates in separate discussions on a subject outside of a public meeting.

City spokesman Peter Wells said the city had given the Attorney General’s office the requested information by last Friday, the deadline.

“The AG’s office has indicated that they may follow up with additional questions or proceed directly to completing a determination in this matter,” he said in an email.

Mayor Tom Swisstack declined comment until a decision was reached.

At the time of the alleged violation, Wilkins, Scott, Crum and Clayton were proposing animal ordinance changes that loosened requirements, and Cantu publicly opposed the amendments. If the councilors were found to have had a rolling quorum, that could negate approval of the changes.

In her letter, Cantu wrote that Clayton and Crum were listed as co-sponsors for changes to the pet store section of the animal ordinance, which she believed indicated they’d discussed the issue. She said she and another person later saw Clayton meeting with Wilkins and Scott, and Wilkins told her they were discussing the animal ordinance.

“For this reason, I believe any and all actions taken on the proposed ordinance violate the Open Meetings Act and are therefore, as the act prescribed, invalid,” Cantu wrote.

Crum said he was pursuing lifting the ban on cat and dog sales in pet stores long before Clayton won office, and he asked Assistant City Manager Laura Fitzpatrick to list him as a co-sponsor on the proposed removal of the ban, without talking to any other councilor.

“My faith drives me to stay away from breaking the law, and I do it because I want to serve the people,” he said.

Crum said an inquiry before filing the complaint would have shown there was no wrongdoing and saved expensive time for attorneys.

Clayton said his position matched the city’s response to the complaint.

In the response, Acting City Attorney Kenneth Tager wrote that while Wilkins, Scott and Clayton acknowledged they met to discuss the animal ordinance among themselves, three councilors isn’t a quorum and so it doesn’t violate the law. In affidavits, the three denied talking to any further councilors about the ordinance outside of open meetings.

The response quotes Crum’s email to Fitzpatrick: “I put forth one very specific change, that being to lift the prohibition on the sale of pets... I find no mention of it, perhaps I’m missing it, but if not please add it. Also, if one of the other councilors is already advancing the change, I’m requesting to be included as a co-sponsor.”

Tager writes that the email shows Crum didn’t know if another councilor was sponsoring the change, and thus hadn’t discussed it with any of them.

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