City to Pay N.M. Paper $61K in Open Meetings Case

By: Mark Fitzgerald

When city councilors in Las Cruces, N.M., tried to get around the state Open Meetings Act last year by issuing a private reprimand against a colleague, the hometown daily called them on it by filing a lawsuit. Now, a judge has ordered the city to pay the Las Cruces Sun-News $61,000 to cover its expenses pursuing the case.

“We got almost everything we asked for, though the judge cut it back a little,” Sun-News Editor Jim Lawitz said in a telephone interview. Attorneys for the city had asked the judge to cap the attorney fees at $18,000 to $20,000, The Associated Press reported.

The lawsuit proved a slam-dunk for the newspaper. Back in April, state District Judge Robert Robles issued a summary judgment finding the city violated the Open Meetings Act by conducting a “rolling quorum” in response to an ethics complaint lodged against Mayor Bill Mattiace, who at the time was a councilor. The former mayor met one-at-a-time with the five other councilors to get their signature on a letter of reprimand against Mattiace. “They reached a consensus, and they didn’t do it in a public forum,” Lawitz said.

This isn’t the only Open Meetings fight on the agenda for the 22,168-circulation Sun-News, Lawitz noted. The paper is now pursuing the County Commission for an alleged violation. “Southern New Mexico in some ways still needs lessons in Open Meetings and public records,” Lawitz said.

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