Sunday, January 15, 2017

Consolidated Community Elections

Honestly, how many of you will vote February 7 for school-board members? (I'll vote to re-elect Maria Flores!) How many will vote in the Soil and Water Conservation District election in May – or even know that DASWCD elections violate the Constitutional “one person, one vote” rule? 

Fact is, very few. In November 2016, 71,362 county residents voted; in November 2014, 40,628; and in 2015, 3,798 for school board and 2,937 for DASWCD. 

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is introducing a bill that would consolidate elections. Election day would be in early October every year; and all that “minor” stuff that happens at odd times or on odd years we'd vote on that day: city council, ballot questions, conservation districts, school boards, city charter amendments. Everything.

Why is that a good thing? First, it'll clearly save money. One election this year, not three or four.
More important, it'll shine more of a light on some elections that don't garner enough attention. A blatant example is Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District elections. The board is wholly unrepresentative of the voters in this County. That's partly because board-members' districts are drawn up unfairly and probably illegally: a voter in Salem or Garfield is equivalent to dozens or hundreds of voters in Las Cruces. (I haven't done the math.) The result is a board that is mostly against conservation and wastes time on resolutions to fight Agenda 21 and the BLM.

Hiding the ball is easier because the election occurs on relatively short notice at an odd time. You have to care enough about your DASWCD representative to make a special trip to the voting booth. Records show few people bother. (A few more might if those elections were fairer.) That helps an unrepresentative group perpetuate itself, claiming to speak for us as a quasi-public body.

Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison says, “We support consolidation of elections because turnouts will increase, resulting in better representation. Also, the more people actually vote, the more people feel invested in our governments. Government isn't some abstract concept. It's the people.”

Ivey-Soto says “The public has a right to know when their taxes are going to rise, and consolidation ensures the public has that ability.”

County Clerk Scott Krahling calls it “a no-brainer” and will testify in favor of the bill. “I support consolidating all these smaller elections into a community election on a year when we don't have the general election. It saves money, it's more efficient, and it's more accessible to voters. Everyone knows when the vote is.” 

The counter-argument is that the school-board election issues would get lost in the commotion of a general election. And that more people who aren't deeply interested in schools would vote in school-board elections, whereas only those who really care turn out for a quiet election in February. (Ms. Flores says she sees both sides and hasn't a strong view on the bill, although the state school board always opposes consolidation.)

I can understand a school board's desire to have its special day.

But all elections get less attention than would be ideal. We're busy people. We have a right to vote on who'll run our schools or towns or conservation districts. Making it easier to exercise that right is pretty important. Someone who works long hours every day and hasn't time or energy to vote six times a year instead of one or two, s/he has the same right as the person with plenty of time or a more flexible schedule.

Consolidated community elections better serve our democratic values in the 21st Century.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 15 January 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website and (presently) on the KRWG-TV website.]
[A careful reader might inquire, "Why October?"  Originally, it read, "November" -- great time for an election.  But a few communities have run-off elections when no one wins a clear victory.  If the "main" election is in November, that means that in those communities you could be making the final decision about Mayor or councilor in December, which gets awfully close to the end of the year.  I assume the concern is that it would limit time for a new mayor or councilor to make plans or bone up on stuff before assuming office, unless December brings worth weather or seems to close to Christmas.  At any rate, the change was made to October.]

[I should note that the counter-argument to community elections is that with, for example, the school board, a smaller subset of citizens are directly interested in how the schools are run and that in a solely school board election most or all of the voters are focused on that issue and have at least some idea whom the prefer and why; if school board choices are on the ballot with a bunch of other choices, it could be that a higher percentage of the voters who vote in school board elections will be there to vote for mayor or whatever, will know nothing about the school board election, and will vote based on party or some frivolous basis.  That's not an unreasonable argument.  However, one should note that since school boards use our tax money, others who don't work in schools or have school-age children do have a legitimate interest in the elections; and in my view the considerations supporting the change (including saving money, facilitating bigger turnouts, and avoiding abuses such as the soil-and-water district "elections") outweigh it.]

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Serving on a Grand Jury

Because grand jury proceedings are confidential, this column has limits.

When I got called, I guessed they'd throw me out for being a lawyer, a columnist, and an oddball. But I went.

Serving each Thursday for three months was uninviting, but seemed a civic duty. The first day, I sat with scores of others, watching some folks try to get out of serving. The chosen twelve went into a room. Then a lady came out to ask for a volunteer to replace someone. I volunteered. The other eleven made me foreperson. Nothing personal. They'd just agreed to lay that on the new guy. 

Grand juries decide whether or not to indict people charged with crimes. An indictment means the case continues toward a possible trial. Grand jurors merely decide whether it's “more likely than not” that the prospective defendant has committed the crime(s) charged. Not whether searches or arrests were legal or the cops entrapped someone. Not whether someone's guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It takes eight affirmative votes to indict.

Proceedings are secret because everyone's innocent until proven guilty. There's no need to tarnish reputations of people investigated but not indicted. Also witnesses deserve to be sure their testimony won't be reported.

We started by 8:30 and worked till late afternoon, even 5:30 once. 

Each morning we got a list of 20-30 cases, identifying the person charged, the alleged crimes, and the testifying officer. If any of us knew the officer, victim, or accused, we were asked whether or not the relationship would affect our objectivity. The crimes ranged from car burglaries to murder, but were heavy on drug cases (mostly meth), domestic violence, and child abuse. 

For each case, Assistant D.A. Heather Chavez would go on record and read the applicable instructions for the count(s) charged. If we had no questions, she brought in the law-enforcement officer. After I swore him or her in, s/he answered Heather's questions. Hearsay was allowed, so we heard everything through the one officer. We listened for the required elements of each crime. When Heather finished, we could ask questions, and often did.

Then Heather, the witness, and the court reporter left, so we could deliberate. Privately. We couldn't tell even Heather about our deliberations, beyond the result. Sometimes “deliberating” was just me asking if anyone had a question or observation, then taking a vote by show of hands on each count. Sometimes we had extended discussions. Sometimes we called Heather or the officer back in to answer a further question. If there were eight affirmative votes, I'd sign the indictment and call Heather back in.

Defense attorneys complain that grand juries are so strongly influenced by the district attorney that they would indict a ham sandwich. The first day, we declined to indict someone because the victim's account didn't seem credible, even secondhand. 

Most cases were straightforward. Sometimes I foresaw real issues for trial, but not for the grand jury. Occasionally we declined to indict. Sometimes we indicted on a lesser charge, or on just some of the counts. Sometimes we added or strengthened a count because we thought the testimony warranted it.
Our varied group enjoyed working together. We were forced to take a glimpse into some very unpleasant lives being lived among us; but legal problems, which are basically human problems, can be interesting. Without commenting on whether grand juries are good or bad, I can say people I met took it seriously. 

We had a pot-luck the final session. I asked how many, if we were asked to serve three more months, would agree? Nearly everyone raised a hand.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 8 January, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG-TV's website.]
[It seems in order to thank court staff for their unfailing courtesy and helpfulness.  We met Alma, who kind of kept the whole thing running, as well as several court reporters, bailiffs, and others.  They were great.  ]
[It may shock some readers to hear that although we had long discussions on some cases, some took under five minutes to hear the Instructions and testimony, deliberate, and report to Heather whether or not at least eight of us had voted to indict.  (We couldn't even tell her the exact vote.)  However, for indictment purposes, some cases are that simple.  An officer reports that she saw a car going 70 in a hospital zone and that when she made the traffic stop the driver, Abel Smith, emerged mumbling, "I'm soooooo shit-faced," then falls on the ground, and scientific tests confirmed the driver's blood-alcohol percentage of .19.  Is it more likely than not that the driver drove while intoxicated?  Although I unfailingly asked whether anyone had a question or concern, it sometimes happened that, quite reasonably, none of us did.  Sure, at trial the defense attorney can try to prove the driver was Abel's twin brother, Cain, or that the breathalizer hadn't been calibrated for 17 years, or that a search of the car, turning up methamphetamine as well as an open bottle of tequila, was illegal.  But no one's making those arguments to us, at this stage of the proceedings.  We're not convicting anyone, or assessing legal issues such as the propriety of a search.  We don't meet the accused, and in some cases don't meet the officer who actually made the stop or conducted the search, so we're not making fine judgments on witness credibility.  Or imprisoning anyone.]
[I should note that the accused can ask to testify to the grand jury; or he or she, or his or her lawyer, can suggest the grand jury subpoena a particular witness who allegedly be helpful to the accused; but these rights are very rarely utilized.  Nor would a competent lawyer want to invoke them in the average case.] 
[I may write some later column on the legitimate political question of whether grand juries ought to continue or should be phased out.   The alternative is a preliminary hearing, in which the two sides, with lawyers, fight a kind of preliminary trial.  This has benefits for the defense.  It's also public.  Defense attorneys argue that it's fairer.  On the other hand, it's probably more costly.] 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Healthcare:Getting what Republicans Wanted Scares the Hell out of Them

There's so much to say about what's going on in Washington these days, but I have so little appetite for saying it.

One inescapable question is what the Republicans think they're doing about health care.

Of course it's a scandal that we don't have some form of universal health care -- as most civilized countries do. 

The basic plan of the Affordable Health Care Act ("Obamacare") is a compromise.  It's actually modeled on something Massachusetts did under a Republican governor, and some Republicans had proposed such a plan at the federal level.

The fact that Republicans so violently opposed Obamacare when Obama proposed it testifies to their real purpose, to try to thwart and embarrass Obama in any way possible.  That was their first priority -- to make him a one-term president -- when one might have wished the country's well-being and security would be up there.

The fact that Republicans have screamed about repealing and replacing Obamacare for several years, but still have not managed to develop even the outlines of a different plan testifies eloquently that they were interested in the political issue -- "Obamacare Bad, Republicans Good!" -- and only secondarily with how good or bad Obamacare was for the country, let alone how to improve it.  Improving it was "giving in" to Obama.  So for years as faults in the law, which addressed a very complex and changing healthcare landscape, appeared, the Republicans had no appetite for making corrections, as one might have expected legislators to do. 

The Republicans are kind of like kids screaming for hours about something just to scream about it -- angry that their will has been thwarted, or that they don't control the universe, screaming about some specific thing as a symbol of all that, then ignoring the thing when someone finally gives it to them.  The prime imperative was to oppose Obama in everything.  So they vigorously opposed Obamacare.  Declined to improve it so they could scream about all its faults.  (Anything you fixed would be one less thing you could scream about.)  Declined to think about what they'd put in its place, because the point was to attack Obama, not to build the best healthcare plan we could. Certainly gave little thought to the actual human beings who had finally gotten healthcare only because of Obamacare.

Obamacare undoubtedly has problems.  It has been a major pain in the ass for my wife, who's younger than I am, and has added to our costs.  Dealing with an underfunded bureaucracy and having to provide the same form three times or tell people the same facts over and over hasn't helped.  On the other hand, Obamacare has been a life-changer for many.

The current debate among Republicans would be comical if it weren't potentially tragic for so many of our fellow citizens.  Republican legislators suddenly have the power they wanted; but since Obamacare has helped many real people, people from all political parties and perspectives, there's an obvious political cost to repealing it.  Polls show that despite the huge political and talk show campaign to paint Obamacare as not only flawed but an evil and dangerous conspiracy against our very way of life, most people do not want to see it repealed but would rather see it improved, or replaced by something better.  So the saner Republican legislators see that they can't just repeal it.

Further, some of the parts of Obamacare they most dislike are some of the most popular or essential.  Forcing healthy people like my wife, and particularly even younger people, to buy healthcare offends Republican ideology, but is essential to making the plan work.  Extending healthcare to young people living with their parents, and to people with pre-existing conditions, has saved lives and saved people from bankruptcy.  So those have to stay, too.

I'm no healthcare expert.  But I suspect there are improvements that could be made.  The fact that the Republicans can't seem to propose any tell us that either they're stupid or they're lazy -- and/or that healthcare in the U.S. is a difficult and complex problem to which Obamacare is basically a pretty good first step toward solving. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!

As I walk to the goat-pen, soon after dawn, white clouds cover the valley. The land slopes down toward Las Cruces, but I see no city -- just bright clouds, then dark peaks on the horizon. 

We could be an island, and those peaks the mainland. A northern island. It's icy today.

We have no goats, but keep compost in the pen. We carry buckets of sink-water down there to keep things moist for the worms. As we poison our planet, composting seems right. 

On my imagined island, people live their lives, don't interfere much with others, but are there for the neighbors when needed. They don't worship things so much. Going to the mainland to buy stuff is more trouble than it's worth.

But the seas are rising. I hope our island rises more steeply from the sea than Bangladesh, Florida, or Manhattan. 

Doing chores on a chilly island seems about right for facing this challenging year. We face serious problems, and have chosen a government which will not help solve them. Those rising seas and melting ice-caps and rising temperatures? We will cease trying to address those issues – and even root out civil servants in Washington who've tried. 

More generally, our government will adopt simplistic methods that would be comical if not so clearly futile. Our economy, in which one major problem is economic inequality, we will address by giving huge tax cuts to the wealthiest folks and minor cuts (or small increases, effectively) to the disappearing middle class. The long-discredited “trickle-down” myth. McDonald's employees, so poorly paid that many need public assistance, will be cheered to know the Secretary of Labor will be a fast-food executive strongly opposed to raising the minimum wage. 

Leaders from both parties have long recognized that we must address our carelessness toward our environment, particularly for future generations. Now the EPA will be led by an oil-and-gas lawyer who has spent his life fighting it. As polar ice caps melt, as predicted, we'll fiddle – or watch “The Apprentice.”

Extremists, perverting Islam by killing in its name everyone who does not agree precisely with their program, have tried to portray events as a holy war between Islam and a diverse modern world full of Christians, Jews Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, and people who don't much care. Now, our President-elect cooperates with them by threatening to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Religious extremists – Islamic, Christian, Hindu – have fought against science and tolerance. Now we too will deny scientific developments we don't like and blame “the Other” for our difficulties.

The Chinese are serious economic competition. So we will start by insulting them, to soften 'em up, like trash-talking in basketball. (But trash-talking often serves merely to inspire opposing players to play harder and better.) The Russian government is greedy, imperialistic, and corrupt. So we will start by expressing our admiration for Vladimir Putin while refusing to listen to the unanimous view of our intelligence agencies that he tried (perhaps successfully) to determine a U.S. election.

Will we replace the majestic eagle with the ostrich as our national symbol, hiding our eyes to some problems and to the subtle difficulties of others, or with some yappy little breed of dog that barks ineffectually at everything? 

Still, have a Happy New Year! (Do not let political and social difficulties affect too deeply your heart and mind, or infect them with hatred.) Watch this government closely, but understand that we deserve it, and try to assess why. Make your world better by nurturing children, helping elders, loving friends, and maybe even composting.
[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 1 January, and also on the newspaper's website and the KRWG-TV website.

[We had a couple of mornings that were beautiful in the same unusual way, with white clouds catching the early-morning sunlight and blanketing the city, then the distant black peaks looking like a mainland sixty or seventy miles away -- and with reddish or pink in the sky above those.  Did remind me of islands I'd known.]

[I understand that composting doesn't weigh much in the environmental scales compared with all that we're doing, and even the part of all that attributable to me.  That it's too late to prevent the problem, and probably too late to minimize it, particularly with folks coming on board who profess to believe it's a Chinese hoax.  Too, although I composted for years elsewhere, because I also gardened, if my wife were not so strict I'd probably (once we moved our compost down to the goat-pen, because it attracted too many roaches) have proved too lazy to carry buckets so far so often; but it does feel idiotically reassuring.  It's a reminder.  It's also a wonderful opportunity to see birds, butterflies, tricks of the light, and occasional flowers or wildlife I'd not have seen from my desk if carrying buckets hadn't drawn me outside for a short walk.]

[Folks have said we should give the incoming administration a chance; and I've agreed.  For one thing, there is little profit in repeating the observations we all made during the election about Trumps' past and character and unsavory connections, because those failed to convince a whole lot of our fellow citizens that he'd be medicine worse than the illness.  Rather, we need to focus on what he actually does, particularly what he does to enrich the rich even further at the expense of his "constituency," mostly white mostly male folks who feel undervalued and pissed off.  They have good reason to be pissed off.  Trump will not prove the answer; but they will see that, if at all, only through his actual betrayals of them, not through carping progressives pointing out his many faults as a human being.  Perhaps I've jumped the gun, but most of my comments in the column are based on his appointments and his post-victory conduct, not on campaign rhetoric.  Sadly, he's proving so far to be about as bad as he could be.]

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Christmas Column in a Year Full of Hate

Merry Christmas!

Or Happy Holidays!

There are so many gifts I wish I could give . . .

To our country: a renewed sense of purpose; a government closer to all of our ideals and needs than the one that will soon commence; and a renewed ability to listen to each others' views without simultaneously forming in our minds a caustic response.

To our state:
- putting top priority on using our sunlight as an energy source, for the good of our pocketbooks and our planet;
- better funding for the judiciary, for everything from courthouse security and better salaries for judges and jurors, to programs that deal with drug addiction and mental-health problems; and for public defenders;
- legalization of marijuana, which would not only be the right thing to do but also help ease our financial problems, by eliminating the vast expenses of incarcerating marijuana users and retailers and by providing additional state revenues;
- and, last but far from least, a helluva lot of rain! And a good outcome to the water litigation and a much-enhanced appreciation of the need to conserve water in our desert southwest.

To our community:
- a repaired and improved mental health system, considerably better than what we had before Governor Susana Martinez wrongfully destroyed it in 2013 over phantom fraud allegations;
- more funding for programs like Community of Hope, Casa de Peregrinos, Casa de Niños, El Caldito, and Beloved Community;
- more people like Gerry Vest, Ann Palermo, and Carole Bernal, all of whom we lost this year (along with many other fine folks); Gerry did great work helping troubled veterans, and I never saw him without a huge smile and his two small dogs; Ann's commitment to our community was obviously deep and broad; Carole was a gutsy cancer survivor a fiercely proud grandmother, and a loyal friend;
- more support for the arts community and such members as The Big Picture, The Unsettled Gallery, Mesquite Art Gallery, Art Obscura, and Más Art, and the Rio Grande Theater, as well as NMSU and city museums, and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum;
- and a 2017 in which no law-enforcement officer is shot, knifed, punched, beaten, or spat on – and in which no officer has to shoot anyone. Or mistakenly thinks s/he has to.

But with my sleigh at Mascitelli's, I'll have to settle for giving what I can: I'll keep writing these columns so long as people keep reading 'em, though my preferred genre is fiction. (My present to Sound-off is the fun folks have saying that the columns are fiction.) 

I'll keep telling the stories of citizens, peace officers, public employees, and others who get the short end of the stick (or get whacked with the business end) and aren't in a position to speak up.
And I hope to bring an occasional smile to your lips with photographs of sunsets, or profiles of some of our best, like Josh and Arrow.

I'll also keep working to get our new community radio station, KTAL, on the air within the next three months. Another gift the community can give itself. “¿Que tal?” you might ask. We're over some hurdles, and hope to start podcasting in January and broadcasting in March.

And I'll keep talking – and listening – to everyone, with my mind as open as I can pry it. Even if we disagree about some issues, in the desert we're all neighbors, no matter how far apart we may seem. 

So Happy New Year, neighbor!

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 25 December 2016, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG-TV's website.]

[Reflecting on this column and on Walt Rubel's, the phrase "practice random acts of kindness" kept coming back to my mind.  (The whole saying is "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.")  It's still a good thought -- and a good practice -- all year round, and worth a column in itself.  Occasionally in San Francisco, when I felt particularly good (and flush, I guess, and when tolls were a lot less than they are now) I used to go through a toll booth and not only pay my $2 but give the toll-taker an extra $20 with instructions to let the next ten people through without paying.  It was great.  The toll-taker's day was brightened, as were the days of ten people I never even saw -- or more, if others decided to pay for folks behind them.)
Recently I'd been thinking of trying to urge folks here to follow the practice, at least around Christmas.  Saturday at the market a friend told us about her daughter.  Her parents hadn't told her much about Christmas.  Then in a long NPR skit the daughter heard that there was an old man who went around giving gifts.  When she announced that news to her parents, they listened and remarked on how near that was -- which indeed it is.  They did not express either skepticism or belief, but just listened, letting her absorb what she might.  I liked that.  In the same spirit, urging folks to give not only to their families and friends but to random strangers or slight acquaintances -- all year but particularly around Christmas -- seems a good idea.  For all of us.  Atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, and others ought not to be put off by the association of Christmas with Christianity, because that association is slight.  Historically, there were mid-winter festivals before Christ; and more recently, Christmas is much too much of a marketing trick - "Celebrate the baby Jesus by buying more plastic trinkets," as another friend said Saturday morning.  Christmas just happens to be a time when, in our culture, folks are more receptive to the spirit of giving.  Loathing the way businesses pervert that doesn't mean we can't share in the spiritBeing generous at Christmas doesn't endorse what anyone else may be doing.  Further, even if some say or do hateful things in the name of Jesus, his story as told in the gospels is certainly a lovely one from which we can all learn.]

[I also resolve for next year that at least once a month I'd like to use the column for just a profile of a person, place, or situation that illustrates the good in our community.]

[Gerry and Carole.  Ann Palermo was pretty well-known and the Sun-News wrote about her.  Gerry and Carole weren't.  I knew Gerry casually.  A gentle, smiling guy I talked with often at the Farmers' Market.  I knew he worked with troubled veterans, and was much appreciated by them.  But to most of the community, he was probably unknown.  So was Carole.  Earlier this year I wrote a draft column about her.  What I wanted to express, aside from personal respect and affection, was respect for the folks no one knows who have good hearts and do what they can to make ours a better world.  She had a lot of tough stuff thrown at her.  She survived breast cancer, and rather than hiding that fact she turned it into a crusade to urge younger women to take care of themselves.  She and Reymundo had a long, caring marriage.  Behind many anonymous doors in our community live others who live good lives and show tremendous courage in dealing with pain and unfairness.  I'd rather write about them than Senators and Congressfolk.]

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fitting the County Commission's UDC Meeting into a Busy Day

I rush from the County Commission UDC meeting to take my 86-year-old friend to the doctor. 

My friend was an NMSU professor here for thirty years. In 1965, he briefly made Cruces famous, when he and some other locals made a low-budget feature film, in days when only Hollywood made features. AP ran a national story on him. Now he shuffles into the doctor's office, unknown.

“Beautiful mountains,” he says, pointing at the Organs. (I could do a column on people's first reactions to the Organs.) He first saw them in newspaper articles NMSU professor Newman Reed sent after NMSU offered him a job. (When Reed started here, Solano still had cattle-gates.) 

Thinking cattle-gates reminds me of the UDC, which so many worked so hard to make the best it could be. Others tried to sabotage it, saying it's imperfect (which, like anything human-made, it is) and should be tabled, left to the next commission. “Left to die,” they mean. If they really meant improvements, then amendments could do that. Why would we want new commissioners to spend hundreds of hours, or make Planning & Zoning and scores of citizens repeat endless hours of hearings, to make unspecified small improvements? 

After the doctor, I take my friend to the bank. From the parking lot on Telshor, I let the western mountains on the horizon catch my eye. I'm glad I returned to live under this vast sky. 

A realtor told the Commission he'd heard a lot of talk about democracy, and that the UDC shouldn't be passed. He didn't really explain what was wrong with it, except that it was “restrictive.” Reasonable restrictions, while they may protect citizens, can be inconvenient for realtors.)

So I said more about democracy. The county worked on this thing for years. I feel like people have been inviting me to UDC meetings since I was about seven years old. There were countless public-input meetings throughout the county. The P&Z held lengthy, detailed meetings – some of which my wife attended, hour after hour, watching the sausage get made. Right up to the end, staff and the P&Z were making recommendations responding to public input. The P&Z made recommendations. The elected Commission acted. Commissioner David Garcia, who always seems painfully earnest about trying to do what's right, ensured that key questions concerning affordable housing and grazing rights were aired, heard from numerous citizens, then cast the deciding vote. Yep, democracy.

I stop for supper at the Co-op, a democratic institution which is celebrating its 40th year. I'm thinking about time and change and our varied roles over time in a place we call home. Tuesday the huge Commission Chambers were filled today. Forty years ago, when I was a reporter, the commission (just three commissioners then) met in the old courthouse, in a small room with hardly a dozen chairs. No one contemplated a UDC – or a county nearly so populous! Everything east of Tortugas Mountain was desert where we dirt-biked. Retired City Manager Robert Garza was a mischievous kid. Saturday we watched his son help NMSU beat UNM. 

My wife joins me at the Co-op. She talks and laughs with staff, hugs some of them, listens. Earlier she spoke passionately at the Commission meeting. After the UDC passed, she stood talking at length with people who'd opposed it, listening to their arguments, hoping to facilitate better communication between them and County staff.

We all do the best we can. The Commission did its best. We all owe thanks to the departing commissioners, even if we sometimes disagreed with them.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 18 December 206, and on  the newspaper's website, and will appear presently on the KRWG-TV website.]

[I wasn't happy with this column.  Maybe trying to mix things that don't mix so well: a brief account of the County Commission meeting on the Uniform Development Code and a more impressionistic portrait of a day that seemed to feature a couple of things I think about now and then, the varied roles we perform in our community in a given day and the changes in our roles and relationships over long periods of time in a particular place.  The latter fit in with part of what I wanted to say about the UDC, while the former was just something my day seemed to thrust into my thoughts.  (Before dawn I was writing a fictional scene set in 1968, a scene in which one character, listening on radio to the Chicago Convention, concludes that the only way to stop the Viet Nam war would be to start assassinating high public figures; riding to pickleball, I spent 20 minutes counseling a legal client, then spent another ten minutes talking with a second client before I got to play; I enjoyed pickleball; then I listened and even got up a couple of times to speak about the UDC; then I was sort of a caregiver for my friend; then I supped at the Mountain View Co-op, to use up the hour before my KTAL Radio board meeting.)  
Driving my friend around helped make me think about changes over time.  He got here in 1959, I think.  More than a half-century ago.  I arrived 20 years later.  He was a professor, married, with a daughter and soon a son as well.  At 40, he had never camped in the wilderness or ridden a motorcycle, although a few years later those became the focus of his life.  He got divorced.  We rode dirt bikes around outside our small town, and street bikes across the country.  He retired and became a hermit on our land at the southern end of Sierra County, building a modest home himself, for perhaps $5,000, and living out there without electricity or indoor plumbing or paved road for 24 years, until health mandated the move back into town.  Now he no longer drives, or walks very far.  His mind's still sharp, though, and he's still funny.  Friends and former students still enjoy hanging out with him, making a trip with him to the grocery store much more a pleasure than a chore.  Too, he was always an open, generous sort, inspires the same attitude toward him now.
An incident at the Co-op illustrated the change theme too.  An acquaintance joined me briefly.  Thinking about the idea of a column about people's first glimpses of the Organ Mountains, I asked about his.  He recounted a visit here in the early 1990's to his brother.  That reminded me that although I'm not sure I've ever actually met his brother, about 45 years ago we were seeing the same woman (who was actually married to someone else) for a short time.  I thought about how much that all mattered at the time, and about the fact that now I can't recall her name.  
And a community changes over time too.   This one is no longer what it was in many memories; but the populous county we are now, with all sorts of development all over, probably needs a UDC.
At any rate, sometimes a piece of writing can combine a couple of very different elements in a way that sheds a little more light on both.  I don't think I managed that here.  Sorry.]

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fund New Mexico's Courts!

The Department of Finance and Administration (“DFA”) wants our legislators to do something really dumb this session. 

We depend on courts for justice. Our state constitution makes the judiciary one of three coequal branches of government. 

The judiciary says it needs $171.8 million this year. This funding would also help “problem-solving courts” that deal with drugs and mental health issues. (Even at this funding-level, our judges would remain the worst-paid in the nation. They deserve better.) In addition, the courts anticipate more child abuse and neglect cases, since the Children, Youth and Families Department will have more money.

The Legislative Finance Committee has recommended boosting court-system funding by 3.5 percent, to $162.6 million. DFA has proposed keeping New Mexico Courts' funding at approximately $157 million.

DFA doesn't want to face the real-life consequences its plan would have. Court officials say DFA's proposal would cause elimination of 458 spots in drug court programs across New Mexico. A DFA spokesperson claimed that local sources (which will also be reeling from cuts) could somehow make up the difference. Yeah, right!

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil testified that the proposed funding level would lead to cuts in drug-court programs and court-appointed attorneys. Court security is also nonexistent in some courthouses.

State revenues are down; but cutting the courts' budget is like saving money by not repairing your brakes or putting oil in your car. These short-term cuts would create greater expenses long-term: we spend zillions housing drug addicts in our jails, and if the drug courts can cut the number of such inmates by even a small percentage, that saves us money – and human beings.

7th District Judge Matt Reynolds (Sierra County) told me recently that security is a key issue, with many judges around the state unprotected.

He said further cuts to meet a temporary fiscal emergency would be unwise.

The cuts could mean an end to the three drug courts that have grown into a significant resource in the 7th during the past decade. “If you had a pecan grove, you wouldn't chop down mature pecan trees for fuel in an extra-cold winter,” he said. As with pecans trees, it has taken years to get the drug courts to be what they are today.

He also agreed that such cuts would be illusory. Drug courts divert many addicts into programs where they not only deal with their addictions but get a GED (if necessary) and jobs. Keeping these folks in jail is a whole lot more expensive. Further, jails mostly have revolving doors: without treatment and serious help, an addicted inmate, with no lawful means of feeding his or her habit, steals soon after release and quickly returns to jail. Drug courts can sometimes deal with the root problems and stop that cycle.

“It's painful to see people just go to jail, when the drug courts could help them become contributing members of society,” Judge Reynolds said.

The numbers are significant. Most crimes here are drug-related. It's a national social problem, which Judge Reynolds called “rampant over-prescription of pain medication, and the resulting addiction.” The U.S., with just 3% of the world's population, uses 80% of the world's pain-killers. (“I doubt we have 80% of the world's pain,” commented the Judge.) New Mexico was recently ranked #1 among states for per capita drug abuse. Sierra County ranks #1 in the state for opioids.

Reynolds notes that most of the addicted individuals helped by the drug courts are parents. Thus the help done often affects the next generation as well.

Please tell our legislators and the governor these cuts don't cut it!

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 11 December 2016, and will presently appear on the newspaper's website and the KRWG-TV website.]

[There's a lot more to say on this subject than fits into a newspaper column.  Notably, we have state courts without any real security.  We've been lucky so far with that; but civil lawsuits and criminal trials obviously arouse strong feeling -- negative ones, for folks who don't win.  (I recall years ago in San Francisco they ceased giving rulings from the bench in small claims court cases after a losing litigant bit off the winner's nose in the hallway.  They started mailing out decisions.)  Judges and jurors shouldn't have to be so vulnerable.
I know there are lots of priority programs in the state.  I'm glad no one's assigned me the chore of deciding how to spend New Mexico's more-than-usually-limited funds.  But this is important.  So is appropriate funding for public defenders in criminal cases.  Being a just society is an essential goal.]