- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The Interstate Stream Commission improperly approved two contracts involving the Gila River diversion project in southwestern New Mexico, a judge’s ruling found.

State district Judge Francis J. Mathew of Santa Fe ruled earlier this month in Santa Fe that the entire commission must retroactively pass the multimillion-dollar contracts for work on diverting water from the river.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by former commission director Norm Gaume last year. Gaume argued the panel violated the Open Meetings Act when four of the nine commissioners passed the contracts in secret without getting public comment.

However, the judge ruled that the commission’s approval of the contracts in public meetings before they were signed didn’t violate the state’s procurement code.

The commission was slated to ratify contracts with Bohannan Huston and RJH Consultants on Tuesday, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported (http://bit.ly/20zGXvK). Now both sides are fighting over legal costs and court fees.

Gaume said all this could have been avoided if the commission had simply followed the rules.

“All they had to do from the very beginning was to comply with the Open Meetings Act as I requested,” he said.

New Mexico is seeking nearly $200,000 from Gaume for private attorneys representing the commission. Gaume’s lawyers are asking for more than $260,000 from the state.

It’s the second time the Interstate Stream Commission and Gaume have been embroiled in litigation. The commission filed a counterclaim against Gaume in December 2014 to get coverage of costs in fighting a restraining order he had filed against the panel.

The Gila project stems from the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act, which provides for the diversion of up to 14,000 acre-feet of water from the river each year.

The act provides for $128 million in federal money for the project, but critics say costs could balloon to $1 billion.

The commission has been criticized for its decision to go with the project. Some towns have tried throwing out alternatives such as including a regional water system and watershed restoration projects. The commission has defended its decision, saying exhaustive research supports New Mexico receiving additional water from the Gila.

Topper Thorpe, a commission member and an irrigator in the Cliff-Gila Valley, abstained from voting for the diversion project in November 2014. But he doesn’t “think there’s any question but that diversion will benefit the four western counties.”

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