The former chairwoman of the State Game Commission says her removal was “politically motivated” by a water access controversy.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham decided to let Joanna Prukop’s term expire at the end of December. Prukop said she was not given a reason for her dismissal, either in a call with the governor’s chief of staff, John Bingaman, or in a letter sent Dec. 31.
“I absolutely believe it is political. It’s all about the nonnavigable water rule,” Prukop said.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the decision was a “policy and style” issue unrelated to politics. The governor is expected to appoint Prukop’s replacement before the commission’s meeting Friday.
The nonnavigable water rule was one of several high-profile issues that came before the commission during Prukop’s term.
A previous commission under then-Gov. Susana Martinez implemented a program in 2017 allowing landowners to certify streams and rivers on their property as “nonnavigable.” That means people would have to get written permission from a property owner to access waters that cross their property.
Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, agreed with Prukop on why she was dismissed.
“I can’t identify any other reason whatsoever to remove this extremely well-qualified individual from the position,” Deubel said. “If not stream access, then what?”
Deubel said that while he didn’t always agree with the commission’s decisions under Prukop, he respects her and wants more answers.
Before serving on the State Game Commission, Prukop worked in New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for 25 years and served as the Cabinet secretary for New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
In November, Prukop voted with the majority of the commission to ask the head of the department to develop a plan to amend or change the rule.
“We had an AG memo that said the rule was unconstitutional and unenforceable. We voted 6-1 to make it public and show that it fell in line with every other attorney general’s opinion on the subject,” Prukop said.
Assistant Attorney General John Grubesic wrote that the state constitution does not allow the term “nonnavigable” to limit public access to waters, even if it’s used in some states to determine the public character of water.
Michael Sloane, director of the Department of Game and Fish, notified commissioners in November that they had two additional applications for nonnavigable water certifications. He acknowledged that the previous commission approved similar applications but advised the governing body to reject these two based on Grubesic’s memo.
In December, Sloane and Prukop received a letter from Assistant Attorney General Tania Maestas chastising that decision. “As the Attorney General has stated, our office is committed to assisting in a process to strengthen the rule, however, we are concerned that the denial on this basis prematurely exposes the Commission and the State to extreme litigation risk,” Maestes wrote.
Stelnicki said the nonnavigable water rule factored into the Governor’s Office’s decision to let Prukop’s term expire.
“The unwillingness to abide by proper process, putting the state at extreme legal risk — that was a significant red flag,” he said.
Both Prukop and Joel Gay, chairman of the New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said political donations also were a factor in her removal.
Santa Fe lawyer Dan Perry, who lobbied for the nonnavigable waters law, made political donations to Republican and Democratic candidates. Perry owns property on the Rio Chama and has had it certified as nonnavigable.
Stelnicki denied the Governor’s Office directed the Attorney General’s Office to slow down the process to change the rule and denied campaign contributions were a factor in the decision, calling that “a classless allegation.”
Stelnicki added that Commissoner David Soules had the same term expiration and was reappointed.
“The governor has the authority to remove commissioners at any time; term end dates in that sense are somewhat immaterial,” Stelnicki wrote in an email.
Matt Baca, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said Maestas was not available for comment, and the office had not offered a formal opinion on the matter.
“Our office … only has provided legal advice to the commission intended to reduce the risk of litigation to the State,” Baca wrote in an email. “We have only advised the former chairwoman and the board to follow the rule of law and administrative rule making processes.”
Prukop said repealing the rule will not fix the core issue, which is the conflict between people’s beliefs about private property rights and public access to water.
“Public access to public water — it is as simple as that. But if it’s going to be decided, it’s going to go to court,” Prukop said.
According to a draft agenda, the commission’s next meeting will not include anything on the nonnavigable water rule. The commission has to make a decision on the two applications to have waters declared nonnavigable by May, according to the rules process.
Kerrie Cox Romero, executive director of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, which backs the landowners, said the rule’s status needs to be clarified.
“It’s not on the agenda, but it needs to be,” Romero said. “There’s a big-time gray cloud over this issue. Her last action was to try and repeal the rule in a vote, and it needs be reversed or discussed.”