County employee wins right to public disciplinary hearings
NEW MEXICO–A state district court judge in Clovis held in mid- September that if county personnel policies conflict with the state Open Meetings Act, the state law must prevail.
The court made permanent a preliminary injunction issued in February 1996 that prohibited Curry County from conducting closed personnel hearings when the employee in question requests a public hearing.
The ruling was handed down in a lawsuit brought by the Clovis News Journal over records concerning the firing of Janet Sprague, an employee of the Curry County Sheriff’s Office. Sprague was fired in October 1995 following allegations that she engaged in sexual harassment of a co-worker. Sprague requested a public evidentiary post-disciplinary hearing. At the county’s request, and against Sprague’s wishes, the hearing officer closed the proceeding to the public and press.
The New Journal sued the county arguing that the hearing officer violated two provisions of the state Open Meetings Act. One requires all meetings of administrative adjudicative bodies to be public, and another explicitly states that the act is not to be construed to “preclude an aggrieved public employee from demanding a public hearing.”
The county argued that an open hearing would undermine its sexual harassment policy, which encourages confidential investigations of harassment charges. Moreover, the county claimed that allowing press coverage of the hearing would have “a substantial chilling effect for anyone deciding to pursue a complaint of sexual harassment in the future.”
The court determined that the hearing was a meeting of an adjudicative body within the purview of the act and that Sprague’s right to demand an open hearing superseded the privacy rights of the victims of the alleged sexual harassment. The county plans to appeal the ruling. (Freedom Communications v. Curry County; Media Counsel: Max Best, Clovis)