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.