A meeting this week of the state Public Employees Retirement Association board boiled over when one member stormed out, accusing others of “abetting and aiding” an alleged assault on her, a video shows.
Trustee Loretta Naranjo Lopez demanded fellow board members remove all items from Tuesday’s agenda after alleging fellow Trustee Stephen Neel had assaulted her and attempted to steal her cellphone during a previous meeting.
“The board has been given, has allowed themselves to be abetting and aiding this crime. I don’t see how they can be voted today,” she said, the video shows. “So I’m just asking that these items be removed from the agenda.
“I will not be allowing a quorum to allow state law to be violated,” she added before leaving the room.
Afterward, fellow board members talked among themselves, disputing Lopez’s account of the incident.
The incident is the latest example of a PERA board meeting derailed by infighting. Two years ago, a meeting was disrupted when board members debated for close to six minutes about whether PERA should pick up the tab for their snacks.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, an ex officio PERA board member, said this kind of feuding prevents the trustees — who manage a multibillion-dollar retirement fund for close to 90,000 New Mexico state workers and retirees — from being as productive as they could be.
Toulouse Oliver was brought into Tuesday’s meeting after Lopez left so the board could meet its quorum and proceed with the planned agenda.
“There’s just a pattern of disruptive and accusatory behavior, and it’s really unfortunate because it really prevents the board from getting its work done,” Toulouse Oliver said.
But, she said, after Lopez left Tuesday’s meeting, “We had one of the most productive board meetings that we’ve had in the last three years I’ve been on the board.”
After Lopez stormed out, video shows, other board members discussed a police report she had filed against Neel, alleging attempted assault and robbery, and noted the Albuquerque officer who responded to the scene concluded she was not assaulted.
Five board members offered notarized statements to police saying they did not witness Neel assault Lopez or attempt to steal her phone, one board member said Tuesday. An officer concluded that “Mr. Neel’s behavior was rude,” but “there was no crime committed,” he said.
Albuquerque Police Department did not provide the police report Friday or respond to requests for comment on the report.
During the meeting two years ago in which a snack debate erupted, Lopez said she was “very disgusted with the lack of service they have received on staff,” a video shows, while another trustee, Patricia French, stormed out in apparent frustration after hearing board members might have to pay for their own snacks.
The board chairperson then adjourned the meeting, and members walked out after Lopez made a motion to replace two top executives of PERA and place the chief information officer on probation because she had violated the state Open Meetings Act by broaching a topic that wasn’t on the agenda.
“Jesus. God. That was two years ago. I couldn’t talk to you about it. I just can’t remember,” French said, when asked about the food feud.
But to some, including Toulouse Oliver and others seeking to change the PERA board seats to appointed rather than elected positions, these kinds of incidents are all examples of why such reform should happen.
State Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat, has sponsored legislation requiring higher qualifications for trustees.
Lopez has been censured by the board twice, and French once.
Lopez declined to comment on her allegation of assault against Neel or provide a number for the police report she filed.
PERA board Chairwoman Jacquelin Kohlasch and Neel also declined to comment on the incident.
Trustee Claudia Armijo said in an email, “Please do not contact me at my work email or phone number.”
She went on to say in the email that the PERA board “has been relentlessly smeared by the media with articles that are inexcusably short on facts and high on biased commentary clearly designed to paint the Board in a light that does not reflect the actual work that we do on behalf of PERA’s membership.”
She called an inquiry about the food fight “an unwarranted effort to paint the PERA Board in an unfavorable light.”
“The implication, of course, being that the Board wastes time discussing unimportant and frivolous matters, such as snacks,” she continued. “I can assure you that I am aware of no Board member that wanted to spend any time on that discussion.
“Those meetings can last for several hours, often through the lunch hour. It does not seem particularly outlandish that Board members who are sitting in a meeting for three to six hours might have access to a granola bar and a water paid for by Board members. It does however, seem particularly outlandish that the fact that the Board talked about it would be the focus of, or any part of, the narrative of a news article,” the email said.
Fred Nathan, founder and executive director of the nonprofit policy think tank Think New Mexico, called PERA board conflicts “sadly all too common.”
“The extreme dysfunction undermines the board’s ability to effectively manage nearly $16 billion that approximately 90,000 state workers and retirees are depending on for their pensions,” Nathan said. “It is urgent that Governor and the Legislature take action to upgrade the qualifications of PERA Board members and improve the professionalism of this board.”