The notion of the single citizen taking on big government is popular in American mythology — after all, whether it is Mr. Smith going to Washington, D.C., to battle entrenched interests, or the little guy fighting the city council to stop big development, Americans want to believe that David can still beat Goliath.

Unless, of course, fear of a lawsuit stops the outrage before it can be uncorked.

Right now, one citizen — Norm Gaume, a retired engineer — has been among those battling the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission over a project that would dam the Gila River and divert its water for other uses. Gaume, an engineer and former ISC director, has other disagreements with the agency he used to supervise. He contends the ISC has violated state open meetings law. He sued over the issue, even winning a temporary restraining order canceling a meeting on the project. He contends that some agency decisions on the Gila River Project were made in secret. The ISC eventually was allowed to move forward (and sadly, has approved the project) but the courts did not rule on the claim that the ISC violated the Open Meetings Act.

Now, the state is suing back.

In the countersuit, the state claims Gaume’s allegations are unfounded. Because the claims lack merit, the state argues, Gaume should pay any costs associated with delaying the decision. Those costs aren’t cheap, either, including agency staff time to defend the suit and lost airfare for state consultants after a meeting was canceled. That’s on top of attorney fees. Gaume figures costs could go as high as $100,000.

State officials claim they aren’t suing because of the open meetings claims. They are upset that Gaume’s lawsuit postponed the decision because he sought — and won — the temporary restraining order. That delay was costly, and they want Gaume to pay.

Whatever the motivation, this lawsuit is out of line. A citizen must be able to seek redress legally without fear of being wiped out financially later. A judge granted the restraining order delaying the ISC meeting — will the state call the judge on the carpet next? Gaume’s claims had enough merit to stand initial scrutiny.

Just-appointed state engineer Tom Blaine — who also serves as secretary of the ISC — came on the job in November. Whatever did or didn’t happen in the meetings leading up to the ISC decision on the Gila River Project, Blaine was not involved. He wasn’t on the job yet. Now, with his influence on the ISC, he should persuade his fellow commissioners and the agency attorney to drop this lawsuit.

Citizens have enough trouble standing up to big government without the threat of financial ruin. The state of New Mexico needs to drop this lawsuit.

(11) comments

Khal Spencer

This morning's Albuquerque Journal Editorial Page has a long editorial, by the newspaper, condemning this suit. They came right out and called it a SLAPP suit, as did I.

Steve Harris

Jay Baker mischaracterizes Mr. Gaume. Virtually his entire career has been devoted to water resources: at El Paso Public Utilities, City of Albuquerque and as Director of ISC.
While he may have occasion to regret some of his decisions (such as the hiring of Craig Roepke, architect of the current Gila Diversion project) he also initiated two of NM's only new water policies-Active Water Resources Management and Emergency Drought Water Agreement. And ISC could sure use him now!

Jay Baker

Mr. Harris - I apologize if you feel I mischaracterized Mr. Gaume. The views I expressed below have been the impressions I have been left with after numerous discussions with current managers at that agency.

I sincerely hope you are right, but I do have my doubts after seeing how things are turning out with that particular agency. I also harbor doubts, as Mr. Gaume is listed as a licensed Electrical Engineer. No offense to anyone, but if I had cancer, I'd visit an oncologist, not a podiatrist, and that is somewhat analagous to Mr. Gaume's background, an electrical engineer attempting to work in water resources.

For all our sakes, I do hope I'm wrong, but I am skeptical at this point, particularly with the knowledge that Mr. Gaume hired Craig Roepke and others.

With all do respect, I do not believe that the Interstate Streams Commission could use him now, as I believe his time has passed. They need a housecleaning and competent professionals with fresh ideas.

I respect your views and critique of mine. Thank you. I hope I get to meet you sometime and discuss these issues further.

Jay Baker

Mr. Harris - as I write this reply, I need to let you know that Mr. Gaume negotiated a settlement with this state agency. Looking at the order closing the suit, it appears that Mr. Gaume is not the bold, confident person you made him out to be, but rather someone that is walking away from this cause with his tail tucked between his legs.

I assert again, that Mr. Gaume created the problems in that agency with the unqualified, unproductive and downright dishonest people he hired, yes, Craig Roepke being one of them.

Claudia Daigle

Citizens must have the right to redress and it should be encouraged. The court found merit in Mr. Gaume's lawsuit and issued the restraining order. I applaud Mr. Gaume for his diligence and for caring enough to do the work necessary to try and make a difference and stop a wrong. I will write my legislator, as per Mr. Spencer's suggestion below, to drop this now frivolous and vengeful lawsuit by our state against Mr. Gaume, a responsible citizen who was trying to do something good for all of us. Our state does not need to get into the business of legally challenging our citizens for being responsible citizens, but, they do need to be transparent in all their dealings and obey the open meetings laws. The project to dam the Gila River should be re-opened and discussed within the open meetings rules as the law states.

Amy Moya Munoz

You can include the city in the list of those who try to quash concerned citizens' participation including protective orders to prevent Inspection of Public Records and the right to appear in front of city council from petitions from the floor (1st amendmend--last several words).

Jay Baker

As an aside, Norm Gaume (an electrical engineer) worked for the City Water Utility under contract when the design and build out of the Buckman Direct Diversion Project was going on. His lack of understanding of water treatment led to major design and construction flaws for that facility. As a City consultant, he reported directly to Rick Carpenter, the Project Manager for that project. Mr. Carpenter has a degree and background in political science, not engineering or water resources.

Wonder why we have a problem now?

Jay Baker

I know a few senior managers at the Office of the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission. Here's the problem that I have with this, based upon conversations that I have with them.

This problem was caused by the Gila Project Manager, Craig Roepke. He was hired and mentored by Norm Gaume to pull things like this. This type of action is exactly what Norm Gaume would have done. Norm Gaume isn't the great, nice man he is trying to make himself out to be. He helped create this problem with the managers and staff he hired at the Commission. He isn't part of the solution, he's part of the problem. He's also an Electrical Engineer, who really isn't qualified to work on water engineering problems. Just like his star protege, Craig Roepke, isn't. But they are both causing problems with their ignorance and arrogance.

I'd like to see the damage Gaume has done throughout his career undone, but we (and now he) are stuck with it.

Donna Gomien

I would guess that most people haven't read the First Amendment all the way through (although it is only 45 words long). The final clause guarantees, "the right of the people... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Emily Koyama

Whether it's at the state or federal level, government has a history of squashing pests that get in their way- whether it's through lawsuits, the IRS, or other agencies that have the power (and deep pockets) to go after troublesome citizens. Those who love big government and excessive regulation/taxation are just feeding and enabling the beast. Wake up.

Khal Spencer

Spot on. In a recent article, the Albuquerque Journal's science writer John Fleck also made clear his own worries that this was not on its face a frivolous lawsuit. Apparently, the judge who issued the TRO did not think so either.

This reeks of a state-sponsored SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) against Norm Gaume, and the public needs to vent its wrath at the Interstate Stream Commission and whoever the puppetmasters are driving this lawsuit. I've already written my legislator, Norm's attorney, and NMFOG (New Mexico Foundation for Open Government) venting my spleen over this legal travesty. You should too.

Its not the final product that is as important as the process, and on something as important as the Gila, the process is pretty damn important. Rarely do we agree completely on major issues like this, but unless such major decisions are made in a transparent manner, trust in government will be the first casualty.

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