EPCOG chair: No vote needed in firing

By Robin Fornoff: FNM content editor

The chairman of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments board says he exercised “executive privilege” when he fired EPCOG’s former director last fall.

Richard Arguello also acknowledges there was never a vote to name Arguello as EPCOG’s interim director but said board members did not object.

Details of how Arguello came to lead the agency are reflected in minutes of EPCOG board meetings obtained last week by the Clovis News Journal through a Freedom of Information request.

Arguello said the decision to fire former Executive Director Nick Brady was Arguello’s alone and the matter was never put to a vote by the board or its executive committee.

Brady, director about 18 months, was asked to resign Sept. 9 and vacate his office immediately. Arguello then appointed himself interim director at a salary of $37,500 — half what Brady was being paid, the minutes show.

The decision was not without controversy.

Tucumcari Mayor Jim Witcher, a former EPCOG executive committee member, said Saturday he considered it “very unusual” that Brady’s firing wasn’t put to a vote of the executive committee or EPCOG’s full board.

“I resigned because of that situation, yes,” Witcher said. “And that’s all I’m going to say.”

Arguello said Friday there was no need for a vote to fire Brady. He said he consulted with an Albuquerque law firm and was told that as board chairman he had the power to act without a vote.

“I exercised executive privilege,” Arguello said. “I expressed my concerns in executive session. I said I intended to ask for his resignation and nobody questioned it.”

A week later, according to minutes of a Sept. 16 meeting, Witcher criticized Arguello and questioned why no vote was taken by the executive committee to fire Brady.

From the minutes:

“Jim Witcher stated … he was concerned Nick Brady did nothing wrong. He felt that no one voiced their concerns to Mr. Brady prior to asking for his resignation and that the board made the wrong decision in terminating Mr. Brady.

“Mr. Witcher also voiced concerns on whether Chairman Arguello had previously polled other board members regarding this issue. Mr. Witcher stated that it is his understanding a majority vote of the board must be obtained regarding the decision to ask for Nick’s resignation and not the sole right/privilege of the Chairman.

“Mr. Arguello stated he did not poll the board members. He stated that he has been approached by commissioners, city councilman (sic), as well as the mayor with concerns regarding operations and the way the COG has been representing their entities.”

Meetings minutes also do not explain how Arguello came to be named interim director.

“It doesn’t appear there was a vote,” Arguello said on Friday. But he pointed out EPCOG’s executive committee did vote to reimburse Arguello for mileage to travel from his home in Union County to the EPCOG office two days each week.

Brady, contacted at home Saturday, said he was never told of any problems prior to his dismissal.

“I could understand it,” Brady said “if they (the EPCOG board) had said there were problems that needed fixing and I didn’t fix them. But this just came out of nowhere.

“I was blindsided,” Brady said.

Brady said he believes EPCOG’s bylaws indicate only a majority vote of the EPCOG board can terminate the executive director.

He points to the “Article VIII — Staff” section of bylaws, which reads, in part: “The Council (board) … may spell out in the form of a job description the general and specific qualifications of the Director, who shall serve at the pleasure of the council.”

Arguello said the EPCOG board and executive committee have had ample time to question his decision, “And the board did not.”

“If there is a concern,” Arguello said on Friday, “it can always be taken up by the board.”

EPCOG has been in the spotlight in recent months, primarily because a former employee admitted to stealing $145,000 intended for tornado victims.

Lori Howard on March 31 was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to 72 counts of embezzlement and fraud.

EPCOG’s Arguello also admitted last month that the organization failed to notify the public of an executive committee meeting as required under New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act. He said it was an oversight that won’t happen again.

EPCOG is a consortium of seven counties in eastern New Mexico that helps local governments with infrastructure planning and economic development.