Tie vote halts half-baked review of education director – Santa Fe New Mexican

Tie scores are usually an unsatisfying outcome. Not this time.

A 5-5 vote Tuesday of a New Mexico legislative panel might have staved off the whitewashing of an important investigation.

At issue was a planned review of Rachel Gudgel’s performance as director of the Legislative Education Study Committee. She heads a department that analyzes education practices with the goal of improving public schools for all kids.

Members of Gudgel’s staff said she often made bigoted comments about Native Americans. They also complained Gudgel was a tyrannical boss who caused low morale and high turnover in her government agency of about 15 employees.

Gudgel has declined comment regarding criticisms of her and on a special investigation that led to her being suspended for two weeks last year.

Earlier this month, I reported in my column that most state lawmakers knew nothing about the investigation of Gudgel. It was authorized by a handful of legislative leaders but paid for by the public. A private attorney, Thomas Hnasko, received $260 an hour to investigate Gudgel.

Yet Hnasko was not in the meeting room Tuesday when 10 legislators were to review Gudgel’s work record. Five of the lawmakers scotched what had the makings of a half-baked, one-sided review process.

To date, state lawyers and the director of the Legislative Council Service have denied my requests for all records pertaining to the investigation of Gudgel. They say anything related to her work record is a personnel matter and therefore private.

“Hush-hush” was Democratic state Rep. Liz Thomson’s succinct description of how the investigation of Gudgel was handled.

But public pressure recently grew. Various tribal leaders called for legislators to fire Gudgel. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, asked for a review to determine if Gudgel should remain in her $129,000-a-year job.

Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, chairs the Legislative Education Study Committee, the panel that would decide whether Gudgel would continue as director.

Soules wanted an executive session Tuesday to review Gudgel’s performance. Soules warned reporters they would have to leave the meeting room at the state Capitol once the secret session began. It never got that far.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, pointed out that Hnasko, the attorney who investigated Gudgel, wasn’t present. How could legislators make an informed decision on Gudgel’s fitness for office without hearing from the chief investigator?

Soules, Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque and all three Republicans on the committee wanted to move ahead with the executive session.

Available to testify before them was a “leadership coach” who was hired at taxpayer expense to work with Gudgel after Hnasko’s investigation.

The other five Democrats on the committee stood firm against starting a partial review of Gudgel.

“We have the coach here. We don’t have the investigator,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque.

Trujillo also reminded Soules that she asked for an executive session regarding Gudgel’s conduct in January 2020. Soules and Stewart led the way in blocking it.

House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, pressed Soules on why he scheduled a performance review of Gudgel without the attorney who investigated her.

Soules said he didn’t know the investigator would be on vacation when he devised the schedule.

Williams Stapleton didn’t want a partial review omitting details of Gudgel’s comments about Native Americans.

Stewart, Soules and the Republicans — Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs and Reps. Alonzo Baldonado of Los Lunas and T. Ryan Lane of Aztec — voted to proceed with the executive session.

Five other Democrats voted against a meeting minus the chief investigator. They were Lente, Williams Stapleton, Trujillo and two other Albuquerque lawmakers, Rep. G. Andrés Romero and Sen. Harold Pope.

Romero has been a lawmaker for more than six years and is vice chairman of the panel responsible for supervising Gudgel. Yet he has never seen Hnasko’s report that led to disciplinary action against Gudgel.

The standoff was the better outcome. A selective review of Gudgel’s performance would be an avenue for Soules and Stewart to keep her in office. They are among Gudgel’s ardent supporters.

The fact that so many legislators know so little about Gudgel’s comments and management style is an indictment of Soules.

First, he fought off Trujillo’s attempt to hold an executive session on Gudgel 17 months ago. Soules scheduled Tuesday’s meeting only for the 10 voting members of the committee supervising Gudgel.

Twenty-two other legislators serve on the committee as advisory members. Evidently, their advice is not valued.

Soules and Stewart are among the many legislators who use buzzwords like “transparency” and “accountability.”

But when it came time to review an employee they favor, neither cared that the best evidence was unavailable.

As chairman, Soules should schedule another meeting on Gudgel and make sure the investigator is present.

To be seen is whether he will do the right thing, or if the legislative secrecy around Gudgel’s conduct is chronic.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505-986-3080.