Sunday, December 29, 2013


This evening the sky, just after sunset, looks too soft and too vibrantly red in places to be real, and must have been painted by some being with a huge paintbrush.

A week ago, about an hour before dawn, it began raining so softly I could not be quite sure what I heard. I knew only that as I lay listening to that muted sound, surrounded by silent darkness, I felt more relaxed than I had for weeks, perhaps months.

We live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. That's a gift life gave us, whether we deserved it or not. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt for this magnificent gift, but it sands the novelty off it. Striving to get a child to soccer, to pick up an aging friend's medication, to meet a column deadline or finish a report . . . who has the patience to recall our gifts?

Among those gifts are the stark Organ Mountains reddening in the last rays of sunset, the warm familiarity of my neighbor sitting outdoors having his last smoke of the evening, the insouciance of the coyote trotting down our road as we return from our walk, – and the rare scent of the desert after rain and the rarer sight of the Organs and Baylor Canyon Windmill white with fresh snow.

So are the desert's little miracles: the ocotillo that forms a perfect cross near top of one spine; the rattlesnake, severed with the blade of a pick, still wriggling until it somehow reattaches its two halves, so that a casual glance would reveal nothing wrong with the “sleeping” snake.

Too, the manageable size of our city, and its remoteness from anywhere the folks on either coast consider important, allows us to form and maintain friendships most city folks are denied, because of urban frenzy, modern mobility, and the practical problem that a sudden decision to get together with a co-worker can mean an hour's drive, not the ten minutes that'll get you from most anywhere to most anywhere else in Las Cruces.

You surely have many specific gifts to contemplate.

Some of mine these days:

-- the beauty and grace of rodeo practices I photograph, the proud youth of the riders, the elemental nature of the competition, and rodeo's ties to an endangered part of our national life and history;

-- the sudden upward rush of cranes and snow geese at the Bosque del Apache, each screaming its lungs out and loudly flapping its wings, as the full moon slips down behind the mountains in the background; 

the Tortugas danzas, the guests on our radio show, the three hummingbirds wintering over with us this year for the first time, the taste of chile at Chope's, the comedic genius of our cat, and the mixed wonders of Saturday's Farmers' Market, where people who are now old friends sell us (or insist on giving us) fresh and tasty food from our own quiet corner of the world. Chuck, with mushrooms and sprouts people get to the market ri buy when it opens, before he sells out; two of our favorite couples selling local honey; the Maynards selling free-range beef – the only kind I'd be tempted to try; Bakehouse, with a bigger line each week for good fresh bread and a variety of near bagel sandwiches; and Luis, a small farmer and friend who drives all the way up from Chaparral with his greens, and lays them out irresistibly on his small table.

Yeah, I know it's all transient, we're all transient. Years ago I was riding a train across North China reading the words, “At each moment, do not rely upon tomorrow. Think of this day and this day only, for the next moment is uncertain and unknown.” As I read Dogen's words, the train lurched, then stopped suddenly on a bridge. Just below my window a blue-clad peasant, struck by the train, breathed her last breaths, while a circular pool of blood widened from beneath her, and trainmen and locals exchanged cigarettes and smoked them.

This week I planned to see my doctor, but he was dead. A surgeon in his fifties, with an infectious smile and twinkling eyes – accidentally dead up at Elephant Butte. The titanium joint he put in my knee (one of several that day) has outlived him already.

So yeah, I know friends will die or lose their wits, Las Cruces will probably run out of water.

But that knowledge sets off life's beauty like a frame around a photograph. Death, not life, makes each moment we breathe a precious gift.

My wife calls to me. I abandon the keyboard and walk to the other end of our small home. A nearby peak makes a black triangle against the dusky blue sky. Beside it the full moon has suddenly appeared. Its whiteness in the dark reminds me of a white candle burning in a dark window at Christmas – thousands of miles and several decades from here – with that same ghostly pale circle glowing softly around it.

Thank you!

And Happy Christmas.

[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 29 December, 2013, in the Las Cruces Sun-News. 
It's a respite in a series of less gentle columns.  It just happened to be how I felt the evening I wrote it, and it seemed fitting that it would appear just before Christmas; but communications screw-up (my fault) caused it to be omitted last Sunday.  Otherwise I'd be back to my more usual mode, criticizing public officials and others.  Fact is, I'm a trouble-maker.  That's sort of how journalists kind of should be.  [Saint too; but I ain't one of them by anyone's count; and I lack their excuse of deep religious faith; I'm just a troublemaker because I always have been.  And because I have a low tolerance for bullshit (except, perhaps when it's completely insignificant and uttered in a particularly charming or amusing way).]  By next week I'll be back to pissing people off.]
[Since this is my first blog post since the New Mexico Supreme Court decision that forbidding same-sex marriage violates the N.M. Constitution's equal protection clause, I should mention, as we've discussed extensively on the radio show, I expected it and agree with the court's conclusion.  I also feel that the opinion was well-written.]

Sunday, December 15, 2013

County and Jail Employees Privately Question how the Detention Center is Being Run

Twice last week people asked me about the County's deficit and the huge Slevin verdict. They asked, “Why didn't heads roll?”

Fact is, some county employees opined privately that Detention Center Manager Christopher Barela should have been fired well before the Slevin trial.

The jury socked Barela with $3.5 million in punitive damages. The overall verdict of around $22 million led to a settlement for more like $15 million, of which the County paid half.

But lower-ranking county employees, who fear retaliation and won’t let their names be printed, point to longer-term problems, including alleged favoritism and an allegedly dubious relationship with a vendor. (Independent contractor Aramark employs Barela’s younger brother, and Aramark employees have allegedly spent parts of their shifts working at the boxing gym where Barela coaches.)

Jail officers point to Barela’s special treatment of jailed relatives and friends, including David Peña and convicted murderer Moses Mancheca, Barela’s nephew.

Barela’s great love is the PAL Boxing Gym. Peña was a young boxer there. He got hired at the Detention Center. While on probation he survived two disciplinary issues that one long-time officer said would have gotten most people fired. The same officer said Peña later quit in lieu of attending a termination hearing.
In February Peña tried to kidnap his ex-girlfriend from in front of her place of work on Amador Street. It was his second arrest, and violated a restraining order imposed after the first.

Peña was isolated for his own protection from inmates who had known him as a jailer. A long-time officer says the isolation was right and proper, but that where he was isolated wasn’t.

Peña was allowed to stay in the medical wing. That was allegedly Barela’s decision, overriding the judgment of the Health Care Lieutenant and the Classification Lieutenant. If so, it also allegedly violated written policies against giving preferential treatment to friends and family, or even appearing to do so, and against using one’s position of authority to get an inmate preferential treatment.

Officers had been trying unsuccessfully for two years to get televisions in that area Within three days of Peña’s incarceration, holes were drilled and a TV was installed in Peña’s single-man cell (though not in a nearby four-man cell), allegedly on Barela’s order . One officer called it “direct favoritism.” ( I wrote this shortly after the incident. I assume the neighboring cell also has a TV by now.)

Barela denies favoritism. He told us they had been looking for a way to put a TV in such cells, which are not as tall as normal cells. That means a destructive inmate could reach the TV. He said that once they found a TV they hoped could withstand attack, they wanted to experiment. The first inmate they spoke to said he didn’t want a TV. The second was highly destructive. Barela said Peña just happened to be the next chance to test a TV.

Barela also allegedly made a change to accommodate his brother Ronnie, who had been arrested for a third DWI. There were no curtains on showers. This fact troubled Ronnie. Very soon some curtains appeared. Some subordinate officers viewed this as favoritism.

A few years ago, Barela’s nephew Moses Mancheca was charged with first-degree murder. Normally, such prisoners are housed in maximum security. As one officer put it, “A man looking at twenty years or more has a lot less to lose. And they’re more of a predatory type inmate than a prey type.”

Mancheca was reportedly permitted to roam among medium security prisoners.

Barela says the decision on Mancheca was made by the classification officer, based on published criteria, and that he didn’t participate.

Barela denied knowledge of an investigation of his relationship with Aramark, an independent contractor at the Detention Center.

Aramark employs Ronnie Barela. Chris Barela says that although Ronnie got his job at Aramark during Chris’s tenure at the Detention Center, there’s no connection.

Other officers say Aramark would have fired Ronnie but for Chris's position. One, asked whether Aramark employed a brother of Chris Barela’s, replied, “Oh, you mean the one they’re scared to fire.” Another said Aramark changed Ronnie Barela's job after his third DWI conviction, but would likely have fired anyone else.

Officers also allege that Aramark employees, sometimes as part of their shifts at the Detention Center, work at the boxing gym.

Documents show two Aramark employees admitted they work at the Detention Center, apparently on the County’s nickel.

A commissioner reported this issue to new District Attorney Mark D’Antonio for investigation, and D’Antonio passed it on to the New Mexico State Police. Agent Clint Norris was reportedly investigating this and other issues.

That was months ago. The investigation appears to have stalled. Officer Norris failed to respond to several phone messages. When asked, Commissioners Wayne Hancock and David Garcia confirmed their understanding that Norris was assigned to investigate, but said they’d received no report. When I asked D’Antonio recently, he said he hadn't heard back but would check with the investigator. (Calls to D’Antonio late last week and early this week have yielded no further information.)

Then, just at this column's deadline I spoke with Agent Norris.  He said, "It's still under investigation.  There's been some road blocks we've run into that I've been trying to push through." He'd also been called out of the area on other business during the past several months.  He said he couldn't estimate when the investigation might wrap up -- that of course he hoped to wrap it up within a few more weeks, "but couldn't swear to it." He did not, of course, specify the road-blocks or divulge any specific information regarding his investigation.

We deserve to know the truth.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, December 15th.  It represents my opinions, not the newspaper's.]  

[I'd postponed publishing this column, for various reasons, for months.  I should say that in my discussion with Barela himself he was gentlemanly and courteous and said some good things about running a prison; and I['m well aware of the challenges he faces in his job; but the problems discussed in the column -- and a couple of others I didn't feel sufficiently knowledgeable about to include in the column -- need a fair and thorough investigation.  I hope Agent Norris is giving them that, and have no reason to believe he isn't.   It was reassuring finally to talk to him.  However, if we don't see some coherent resolution of this soon, that will be troublesome.  

I believe Mr. Barela's contract may be up for renewal soon.  Both he and we would be well-served by seeing the fruits of Agent Norris's work sooner rather than later.]

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Facts on the Filibuster

The filibuster may be a national issue, but it feels local: radio listeners frequently call our radio show about it, and I've seen many “Sound Off” comments on it, some of which are just plain wrong. So let me mention some facts.

The filibuster is not in the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson didn't invent it. The first U.S. Senate, in 1789, adopted rules letting the Senate end debate on a bill and vote immediately by “moving the previous question.” No filibuster. However, the Senate (and in those days the House) believed in unlimited debate. Thus the motion to move the previous question was rarely used. At Aaron Burr's urging, the Senate in 1807 eliminated that motion. Since the Senate didn't adopt some other mechanism to shut off debate, the change left open the possibility of a filibuster.

The word itself derives from a Dutch word meaning “pirate.” It refers to taking control of the Senate floor and holding it.

The first filibuster occurred in 1837. In 1841 the Democratic minority used it to oppose a charter for the Second Bank of the United States. Senator Henry Clay tried to end the debate with a majority vote. Senator William King threatened a filibuster, telling Clay to make arrangements at his boarding house for the winter. Other senators sided with King, and Clay backed down.

Strom Thurmond's 24 hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 is the longest filibuster on record. In the 1930's, Huey Long used the filibuster against bills he thought favored rich over poor. In Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart exhausts himself in a filibuster --- and we're all rooting for him.

During the 1950's and early 1960's it was a given that southern Senators would vote against (and filibuster) civil rights legislation, even anti-lynching laws. Some Senators were racists. Some were reasonable men on other subjects, and not particularly racist, but understood that re-election required such conduct. One, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas (for whom Fulbright Fellowships are named), became a world-renowned expert on foreign policy, did much good work during his 30 years in the Senate, and probably wasn't particularly racist, but knew that voting against such legislation was a toll he had to pay if he wanted to keep returning to the Senate every six years.

The rules on filibusters have changed before. In 1917, at President Woodrow Wilson's urging, the Senate adopted Rule 22, allowing the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote. This was called cloture. Cloture was first used in 1919, to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I. In 1975, the Democratic majority changed the cloture rule to require only three-fifths of the senators sworn (60, usually) could limit debate, except on votes to change the rules.

In short: the filibuster wasn't “set forth by our founding fathers” but is a procedural rule that developed in a random sort of way. Although either party, when in the majority, could probably have changed the rule at any point, neither did, presumably both honoring tradition and recognizing that the majority might soon become the minority party.

So far, so good. Although I recall as a kid my distaste for the southern senators' filibusters, which delayed civil rights, the filibuster is arguably a useful provision to enable the minority to delay or defeat (or at least make the majority think longer about) a particularly offensive bill.

Filibusters of judicial or executive branch Presidential appointments were even rarer than other filibusters. Such filibusters have occurred something like182 times in our history, and just more than half that total (92) were Republican filibusters during the Obama administration, In eight years, only about a dozen Bush judicial nominees faced filibusters. I haven't personally checked those numbers; but clearly the Republicans during 2009-2013 have used the maneuver far more than any other group of Senators. (They had even announced this year that they would filibuster any Obama nominee to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeal. One prominent Senator even apologized to a nominee, telling him it wasn't about the nominee,)

In 2005, when Democrats threatened to filibuster some judicial nominations by George W. Bush, Republicans floated the idea of having V.P. Dick Cheney, the President of the Senate, rule that filibusters of judicial nominees were unconstitutional. Compromising, the parties agreed that except under “extraordinary circumstances,” judicial nominations would not be filibustered by either party.

The Democrats seem to have kept that agreement.

The Republicans unquestionably didn’t. Their extreme over-use of filibusters abused the right.

Republicans can't fairly complain that the Senate responded by changing the rule (as to executive nominees and judicial nominees below the Supreme Court level) in response.

They can point out that the Democrats, when next in the minority, may rue the change; but the Dems had little choice; and since Republicans could have done the same thing when next in the majority, it's hard to see how failing to change the rule now would have protected the Democrats' rights as a minority later.

[This column appeared today, Sunday, 8 December, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Political Discourse: Labels Are Convenient but Dangerous

Recent discussions on our radio show have reminded me (1) of the importance of saying why I disagree with someone, without rejecting the speaker; (2) that labels are counterproductive; and (3) that economic arguments based on pure capitalism or pure socialism are unrealistic.

One can strongly disagree with someone’s ideas yet feel warmth and friendship toward that person. Two lawyers opposing each other vigorously in court can fly home on the same plane chatting in a collegial way. I always competed vigorously in sports, diving on the floor to retrieve a basketball or banging into walls on the squash court, then shared a joke or a serious conversation with an opponent the moment the whistle blew or the game ended.

Labels – Democrat, Republican, progressive, reactionary, Tea Partier, socialist – are as convenient but dangerous as fast foods. They hinder serious discussion. By labeling, we place someone in a box that might not quite fit, and duck out on a serious conversation in which we examine the experiences and assumptions that have created our unique views. Meanwhile, extreme views called “left” and “right” often find themselves allied: NAFTA: some current education issues; and marijuana legalization have created that sort of alliance.

I'm also struck by the frequency with which people's arguments begin and end with a statement about the superiority of capitalism and free enterprise to socialism or communism – or vice versa.

Fact is, neither exists in anything like its pure form.

Socialism or Communism is in many ways a fine concept: share as equally as possible, minimize private property and economic inequities, and work for the common good. Problem is, it doesn't seem to work. Never has, for any length of time, except maybe in the Indian province of Kerala. Either informal non-Communist black marketeers and corrupt officials take over; or the Communist society recognizes, as China has done at times, that it needs to stir a little more free enterprise into the mix while retaining focus on the common good.

Capitalism is in some ways an ugly concept. Followed strictly, it makes of all our neighbors tools we can use to improve our economic position. We seek to maximize profit, and don't much care if that ultimately destroys our workers, our customers, our suppliers, or our water, land, and air. The single real obligation of those running a big corporation is to maximize shareholders' profits.

Capitalism too doesn't work in the real world. Pretty much all capitalist countries find it prudent and to develop systems to keep retired folks alive and healthy, feed the poor, limit anti-competitive mergers and price-fixing, regulate companies to keep some vestige of purity in our food and drugs, and regulate them some more to protect our environment. We can argue about how to do that, and how much to do it; but you can't name a purely capitalist country. Not even this one.

So let's abandon those labels too.

There's a lot wrong in our country and our world; but brandishing labels like weapons doesn't help identify the problems, let alone help us solve them.

I should add that I share some of the anger I hear in the voices of Tea Party members I talk to. It just seems aimed in the wrong direction.

All politicians are dishonest. The only difference is that for some dishonesty has become a way of life, while others still try to perform their jobs and follow their oaths of office as much as possible. Tea Partiers and I share that view, although we might differ if we started trying to name the politicians who are relatively honest.

But the real enemies are our lust for extreme wealth and the international corporations. Unlike the government – which has some inefficient departments and some corrupt and/or lazy office-holders – corporations’ avowed purpose is to maximize profit, and to free themselves from regulations that could limit profits. Sure, some regulations are stupid; but others form a web of protection we depend on.

The small government ideal would be great if we were still a small, mostly agrarian society with a huge empty frontier. If I traded the eggs my chickens laid for the boots you made, either of us would know whom to confront if the eggs were bad or the shoes fell apart in a month. Each of us could take effective measures against the other if necessary.

Not so when your meat passes through dozens of hands, and the growers, butchers, transporters, grocers, and others are seeking to maximize profit. Some cut corners. Who's to protect us from anticompetitive activities, drugs that are ineffective or even dangerous, impure food, and the like – and who but the federal government can protect our environment? Yeah, government's big; but much of what is does is stuff we need done. By someone working for us, not for a corporation’s profit.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 24 NovemberThe radio show is "Speak Up, Las Cruces," which Keith Whelpley and I have been co-hosting at 8-10 a.m. weekdays on KOBE-AM 1450 for nearly three full months.  It's been interesting.  It's a rare chance to try to get community dialogue going on all sorts of issues, and to talk more directly than usual with people who hold widely-varied points of view.  That naturally focuses our minds on how to articulate our views, how to listen to others, and how to identify patches of common ground here and there.]


Sunday, November 10, 2013

City Voters and County Commissioners Made Some Key Decisions This Week

It's been an interesting week.

Just this week, voters (though too damned few of 'em!) selected half the City Council and County Commissioners selected a new city manager.

We made the better choice in two of the three districts: incumbents Gill Sorg and Olga Pedroza are heads and shoulders above Dave Roewe (too irascible and somewhat dismissive of the water crisis) and Bev Courtney (sweet-natured but admittedly clueless about water and in need of a lot of cramming on other issues). The water crisis is potentially devastating, and people seeking to help deal with it had better know more about it than Dave, Bev, or I.

In District 6, Mark Cobb had a stronger financial background, a more sophisticated knowledge of business, and more middle-of-the road views than Ceil Levatino.

I think Ms. Levatino was not entirely candid about all her views – or perhaps just not very responsive. (She seems smart, but too likely a rubber-stamp for developers and realtors. We'll see.)

She won for several reasons: reapportionment helped; the recent GRT increase isn't too popular, and she hammered on that issue, particularly in extensive last-minute advertising. We don't yet know who paid for that, but the ads were reasonably well-done but pretty misleading.

One ad included the reproachful phrase “Without a vote of the people” as if the City Council had denied the people a vote. I think some councilors would have preferred a popular vote; but the State had forbade it. Thus the ad, while literally true, clearly implied something that wasn't. Another spoke of the recent County vote on several tax issues, then switched to the GRT as if the votes were on the same subject. They weren't. The county vote involved several issues, and I think the voters actually approved one; but the city did not impose a tax the county voters had rejected.

Further, it appears that her ads ”misspoke” (perhaps grossly so) regarding the amount of money the city would net through the GRT hike.

It'll be interesting to see who paid for all the ads; but Ms. Levatino won, and we should all wish her well – and be grateful to Mr. Cobb for his efforts.

My instinct (helped out by some sources) is that the County's choice of attorney Julia Brown was sensible: she's an outsider whom employees and others in the know won't associate with some of the bad conduct that's gone on at 845 North Motel Boulevard; and as an attorney she can independently assess what she gets told by the County's in-house counsel. It appears that the County Attorney has had too much say in running the county, and has not always conducted himself as he ought to have done. To varying degrees, commissioners know that; but the county manager was their only direct-report employee. Because they aren't lawyers, they had to give a lot of deference to their lawyers, even when they had reason to doubt they were getting the best and most disinterested advice.

I don't know Ms. Brown, but I hope we just turned a corner in the right direction. Sadly, though, we're financially crippled by the Slevin judgment. I still think that case could have and should have been settled, but I wasn't in position to make the decision, so I hesitate to be too critical on that score.

I can speak more freely about the Granados case. It's one of a half-dozen in which former employes allege, generally, discrimination, wrongful termination, and/or retaliation. It could have been settled fairly cheaply at various points. The result (a jury verdict wholly against the County – by jurors who'd probably have voted to put Sue Padilla in the stocks if they could have, judging from my post-trial conversations with a view of them) was reasonably foreseeable. It should not have been as big a surprise as it seemed to be to some on the county's side. But it wasn't settled, perhaps because it would embarrass Ms. Padilla, as it has now done. County could have paid a modest settlement, and not gotten hit with a quarter-million dollar judgment and six-figure attorney fees for Plaintiff's attorneys. I know a fair amount about that case, though not confidential information, and I thought and said before trial that it should be settled. Now it's on appeal – which seems most likely to inflate two sets of attorneys' fees and end with the County paying those, plus the judgment. But we'll see – unless, perhaps, Ms. Brown takes a close and sensible look at the thing and the County, not its insurers, gets to decide. I do know this: of the several cases related to the Granados case, the Granados case was not the most promising – and I'm doubting that even now, having been slapped up the side of their heads by the jurors, the County and insurers see the other cases clearly.

                                                - 30 -
[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 10 November in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

[Further notes? 
Worry about Ceil Levatino eventually trying to pull here what rabid anti-abortion folks did in Albuquerque, wasting a bunch of time, turmoil, and eventually money trying to forbid or restrict abortion here.  Doubt voters here would approve such a move, but if we get a few more councilors who feel as she does (though she seemed to kind of soft-pedal her more controversial views during the election, we could see some effort of that sort.
Wonder about whether the facts regarding Sue Padilla's "resignation" will surface publically -- but, with radio shows to do and lawsuits to fight, doubt I'm likely to investigate further.]  

By the way, if you live in Las Cruces, in the unlikely event that you're listening to radio Monday morning, we're replaying two of our favorite shows from the two months so far of "Speak Up, Las Cruces!" on KOBE-AM 1450.  At 8 a.m., we're replaying the discussion we had with Bob Garza of growing up in Las Cruces, returning here to work for the City of Las Cruces, and eventually becoming City Manager.  At 9 a.m. we're replaying our conversation with Lou Henson, who took both the NMSU Aggies and the University of Illinois to the Final Four.
The high point of the Garza interview for me was an anecdote about a tree.  (If you plan to listen, don't read this paragraph.)  He was a kid when they closed Main Street and put in the Downtown Mall.  Soon afterward, as kids do, he felt mischievous and was batting the leaves on one of the little trees they'd put in.  A shopkeeper came out and gave him a dressing-down he wouldn't soon forget. Many years later, when they were on the point of re-opening Main Street they had to destroy a full-grown and very beautiful Arizona Ash.  They tried everything they could to avoid doing so, but couldn't find a viable alternative.  It was, of course, the same tree.  He says he had a last moment with his tree before they took it down.
A high point of the Henson talk was, of course, just seeing him again.  I knew him slightly forty years ago, but not well enough to recognize the joy in him.  For listeners, a high point should be not his highly-publicized later success at NMSU and Illinois, but his job interview at Hardin-Simmons, in Abilene Texas.  It was 1962, I think.  He was 30, and had coached six years at Las Cruces High.  He was good, but unknown.   The President or Athletic Director at Hardin-Simmons said they wanted to hire him.  He replied that he'd like to coach there, but only if they integrated the team and the school.  A day or so later, they said they would.   That, plus his account of recruiting blacks in Mississippi during a sometimes violent period in the Civil Rights Movement, might be of particular interest to listeners.  Of course, we also discussed a lot of NMSU players from the old days.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Our Lawless Governments

New Mexico governments are on a rampage recently, trampling on laws and constitutional rights and causing sometimes unnecessary lawsuits.

Our Governor abruptly deep-sixed mental health providers; and now the City of Las Cruces is suing the State over the Gross Receipts Tax.

A bad bill rushed through the legislature at the 11th hour, unread by most legislators, cut cities' incomes but let them hike the GRT very slightly. Martinez allegedly warned cities not to exercise that right. Las Cruces did so. The State called the increase illegal because it didn't specify certain points – but the City doesn't see that requirement in writing.

Earlier, the State closed more than a dozen mental health providers, replacing them with an Arizona concern.

The State said an audit showed “credible allegations of fraud,” so that federal law required the State to impose the death penalty on all those companies, sans trial.

Actually, that law permitted the State to ignore the “requirement” in the public interest. Avoiding a disruptive change for patients, and keeping several New Mexico companies alive until proven guilty, would seem to qualify.

The State refused to show us the documents, in probable violation of state law, and got sued. Recently it released a little more of the audit. The auditors say they “did not find what we would consider to be credible allegations of fraud.”

No findings of fraud. No findings of “credible allegations of fraud.”

That the State had contacted the Arizona company months before the fatal audit even began adds to questions about whether Governor Martinez simply did what she wanted, for political reasons, without regard to law or fairness.

Maybe there was fraud. The State's behavior suggests not. While some Republican group paid a bunch of bucks for slick radio ads supporting the Governor's action, state officeholders refused opportunities to appear on the radio to articulate their defense, if any – and face questions. One agreed to participate in our radio program – then never answered further phone calls or participated

In July a jury found Dona Ana County had violated the law in firing Jorge Granados. The County was ordered to pay damages and attorney fees.

Now the County opposes Granados's lawyers request for fees. By statute, they get the fees – doubled. They took a gamble, working long unpaid hours for months or years to right a wrong, as they saw it; and the doubling could also deter further such wrongdoing.

The County objects that there were two lawyers – though we saw two in court for the County, and Raul Carrillo didn't do all the legal research and drafting for the defense.

Granados was turned down by all the Las Cruces lawyers he talked to. Then his El Paso lawyers won a case that the County lawyers thought had little chance. Questionably County motions that failed caused some of the legal fees; and the lawyers had to do all their trial preparation twice, because the County won a last-minute postponement from September 2012 to late June 2013.

The County's lawyers (and/or insurers) don't know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. (Ask Mr. Slevin.) They're appealing, against long odds. We or the insurers will likely end up paying two sets of lawyers to discuss these issues in the appellate courts.

One county attorney recently denied me a public record the NM Public Records Act clearly required him to show me. He claimed that a certain case supported him. I wasted time reading the case, discovering he was dead wrong, and writing a letter threatening suit. Then he backed down. In February, he startled everyone at a very long hearing by announcing in an odd, rambling way that he suddenly saw the case in a new way – at 3 a.m., after about nine hours.

More recently the same lawyer advised the Extraterritorial Zoning Authority (ETA) to deny two members of the public the right to speak during “Public Input.” We had a basic Constitutional right to do so. Generally, when a government opens an area to public speech, it can't outlaw speech based on content. The lawyer claimed that although we were going to discuss general issues, our statements might somehow be taken as improper ex parte communications about a zoning-change request that might be made at some future date.

But when public officials aren't too confident in their abilities, and suspect they'll screw up, they try to err in what seems the safest direction.

NMSU also doesn't respect free speech or the Constitution. It brought three criminal charges against a some-time student who attended a job fair open to the public and stood quietly out of anyone's path beside the NSA table with a sign suggesting “If you want to work for Big Brother, apply here.” The next day, another student lightly tossed a copy of George Orwell's 1984 onto the NSA table. That's a succinct political statement, but it ain't a crime.

More lawsuits waiting to happen, because of official arrogance, incompetence, or testosterone.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 27 October.]

[One difficulty at 845 Motel Boulevard is that the place seems to be run by the lawyers.  More than once this year they've put the commissioners in a tough spot, because none of the commissioners are lawyers themselves and thus can't fully judge the advice they get -- or, if they suspect something's off-kilter, understandably have a tough time disobeying their lawyers.  Further, I have a strong feeling that as to a couple of commissioners the lawyers have either been involved in questionable action against them or have threatened them.  There are also rules -- put in place to keep commissioners from meddling in matters left to the county manager's discretion and judgment -- that hamstring those commissioners who might like to take action regarding the lawyers.   We can only hope that one retires soon and a new city manager doesn't promote from within to replace him.
With regard to the ETA incident: I'd like for it not to end up in court.  However, the initial response by the county offered no legal support for the county's position, but merely asserted that the county lawyer was right and we were wrong.  That's unfortunate, but further discussion might lead to a resolution.]

Sunday, October 13, 2013

D.C. and N.M.

We're witnessing a pretty sad spectacle in Washington.

At its center, John Boehner lacks two oft-mentioned parts of the male anatomy. He knows well enough that defaulting on national financial obligations will do us serious harm, possibly for a very long time. He has assured other moderate Republicans he won't let that happen. But he's frightened of the Koch Brothers and the Club for Growth and other extremists prepared to challenge him in his next Republican primary. He's seen several moderate Republicans purged from the Senate and House by their own party.

Many callers to “Speak Up, Las Cruces!” urge President Obama to compromise, delaying the Affordable Care Act for a year and/or making other concessions.

I don't agree.

We have to pay our debts. They are legal obligations, duly approved by Congress where necessary. If we fail ? Our credit rating declines, interest rates rise for all of us, markets fall, and around the world, where everyone's accustomed to say or think “sound as the dollar,” folks grow nervous.

Why isn't President Obama as responsible for this situation as Ted Cruz and the screamers?

Imagine you and I have a partnership or business. We've agreed on many things, the business is functioning with the usual ups and downs, and we have fixed obligations – mortgage on or rent for our office, loans to repay on our trucks and machinery, and maybe subcontractors to pay every month. We've agreed to these obligations. All checks must be co-signed by the two of us.

Suppose suddenly I tell you that I won't sign any more checks unless my share of the profits rises from 50% to 70%, we hire my son as Treasurer, and we switch from one subcontractor to another. Fair? No. Legal? Sure, until and unless you go through a lengthy legal process and succeed in court, by which time our business no longer exists and we've both paid too much to lawyers.

So I shout, “Why don't you negotiate?” as Tea Party folks shout to Obama.

If you do negotiate, you've just bought another such conflict next month, and each month thereafter when I want something.

It's not about Obamacare. That program will or won't succeed. It was approved by the government, it's being implemented, and opinions vary as to its probable level of success.

It's about maintaining some semblance of ability to function as a democracy.

There are orderly ways to decide whether or not to pass laws – or rescind them. There are legal but somewhat questionable tools like filibusters (which have been overused recently) and refusing to bring up matters for a vote. Moderate Republican Congressmen say that if Boehner had allowed a straight vote on keeping the government open, enough of them would have voted with Democrats to pass it. What the Far Right is doing is legal (although the 14th Amendment's prohibition against questioning the validity of the public debt might trump their cards), but unwise.

In the long run, such tactics:
    • quite possibly destroy the Republican Party;
    • harm the poor and middle class by increasing interest rates, delaying social security checks and other needed help, and pushing the economy back down into the gutter;
    • increase tenfold the uncertainty that tends to discourage business expansion or the starting of new businesses; and
    • add to the doubts most folks have that our democracy can actually continue much longer.
Doesn't matter to the Koch Brothers. If government can't function, it can't make or enforce environmental and other regulations they find annoying. Higher interest rates shouldn't bother them, since it's you and I who may have to borrow for our next home or vehicle. They won't.

They also don't live in New Mexico. Steve Pearce should think long and hard about the fact that New Mexico will pay more than its share of the bill for the havoc he and his pals are wreaking.

Las Cruces, more than most U.S. towns, has an economy in which the military, the federal judiciary, Homeland Security, Whites Sands National Monument, the BLM, and numerous other federal entities play a huge role. Las Cruces has a relatively high percentage of retired folks – many on military or other federal pensions, others on social securrity. New Mexico has more poor children who need the federal help they get. We're also on the border: whether you focus on the need for such protection as those folks in the green and white trucks offer or on the need for all of those southern New Mexico residents in the trucks to get paid, the border matters too.

Of course, it won't happen. I don't think there's a high enough percentage of crazy folks in Congress yet. There'll be a short-term extension to facilitate some face-saving “negotiation”, and maybe they'll toss the medical device tax off the tailgate of Obamacare.

It's already costing us money. (Note the higher discounts required on new Treasury Bonds due for payment after October 17, the pervasive uncertainty intimidating businesses, and the hit our local economy is taken from federal and tourist and other dollars not being spent.)

And perhaps some day, particularly if the right-wing can gerrymander a few more absolutely safe districts in a few more states and legislate clever new ways to minimize the voting turnout among poor people, we'll be in even more trouble.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 13 October.
This morning I wonder if it isn't a little too optimistic.
I recall intending to add some further analysis of what's going on in Washington; but there's a light breeze across the desert, the grey hummingbird is giving a dance performance, yellow butterflies are exploring some pink and white blossoms, and the baby digging snake has narrowly escaped the cat's claws and hidden under a flower pot.]

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Seeing Home through a Visitor's Eyes

Sometimes a friend’s visit helps you see your home with fresh eyes.

Don Gagner – my friend and father-in-law – visited from Japan for a few days this week. He isn’t Japanese. He’s a New Englander who played semi-pro football, got drafted by the Yankees, and worked as a lumberjack, a high school teacher, and a coach. He’s also lived the last 18 years in Japan. The last eight years he’s been happily married to a Japanese lady named Midori.

Some of his reactions to Las Cruces were unsurprising: the sky sure is big when it ain’t blocked by a bunch of buildings with 10 or 20 or 60 stories. (He lives in Osaka, which is similar in population size to New York City.) The portions on your plate in any restaurant here are gargantuan compared to Japanese portions. (He liked the quality of the food here too.) People’s hearts are pretty big too, in terms of friendliness toward strangers.

The Organ Mountains looked almost artificial, he said: as if someone had just painted ‘em there, and not all that realistically. Which reminded me that when I first arrived in August 1969, I said they looked like out-sized cardboard backdrops left behind by some Hollywood film company shooting on location. To each of us, they just looked too danged stark and vertical to be real, until you climb up into them.

In Bar Canyon and just walking around at sunset behind our house he marveled at the odd flora and fauna you don’t find in New England or Osaka (and as I write these words he passes the door marveling at the sunset).

Visiting White Sands was fun. Near the entrance, when he marveled at the sight of some modest white dunes amongst the cactus and scrub, we marveled with him – then sort of strung him along by saying long before we really got into the dunes, “Should we turn around?” and “Yeah, probably. Or maybe go just a little further,” as if there wasn’t much more to see. This enhanced his surprise when the world turned wholly gypsum and we shed shoes and wandered off into the whiteness. (And the coolness: “It’s so cool!” he exclaimed, thinking of the hot sands of New England and Florida.)

On the other hand, the Rio Grande was even more disappointing to him than it was to me in August 1969. Back then, it wasn’t all that Grand, compared to rivers like the Hudson and a bunch of others with far more modest names, but at least it was a Rio until it shut down for the winter. I suggested he and Dael drive down to it, just so he could see the famous river up close. When we reunited, he grinned and reported – “. . . and we had a little swim in the river. Incredibly refreshing!” Then he grew serious and asked if the phantom river was a big topic of conversation and concern here.

Driving to the radio station Wednesday morning, I mentioned that same-sex marriage might come up during the second hour, when N.M. Senator Bill Sharer (R-Farmington) would call in. Don had two reactions. Personally, he figured marriage was one form of relationship between two people, and whether or not people got married, whether or not they did so in some church, and whether or not they married someone of the opposite sex were all up to the couples involved – not up to him, and not up to the State. On the other hand, he knew Japan, which is quite conservative in many areas, was unlikely to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon. He’s hardly older than I am, and we remarked on the fact that 50 years ago we wouldn’t have thought of any such thing as same-sex marriage.

At restaurants, at shops, at the Farmers’ Market, he enjoyed the openness of the people he met – as well as finding unique gifts for his wife, students, or friends, including an old license plate to hang on the fence and a “soap-saver” (made locally by for his thrifty mother-in-law..

Perhaps above all he enjoyed the ability to travel back and forth in a very short time between the natural world of beauty and solitude and the human world where nice people in pleasant restaurants serve tasty food at reasonable prices.

There are things we all enjoy about Las Cruces. Those of us who haven’t always lived here notice them consciously each time we return, then enjoy them unconsciously until someone else visits.

The dark, looming shape of the mountains after dusk, the colors in the twilight sky, the peace that helps us find sleep, after a hectic schedule of work or travel elsewhere. The interesting, often quite talented, and incredibly varied friends we get to know so much more deeply here than we’d be able to in some large city. The evening’s first star, sitting high above the mountains in that darkening sky, and then its uncountable brethren in all their splendor, undimmed by millions of streetlights, headlights, and office buildings.

I’d sound pretty sappy running on about all this each week; but elements of the magic of this place do cross my mind at odd moments. It’s refreshing to have a friend’s visit bring it all back up to consciousness.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 29 September.  It's worth noting that Don Gagner, who's since arrived safely back in Osaka, read it and remarked that our visit to Osaka last year had a similar effect on him, refreshing his appreciation of some of its wonders.]
[If you're a Las Crucen, it might also be worth noting that among the establishments to which we took Don were Milagro's (for excellent coffee and fine pastries), Spirit Winds (for a black-bean veggie-burger or a tuna sandwich), Luna Rosa (where we like the salmon salad, Don chose the pizza, and we all ate more gelato than we should have), and Habaneros (on Solano, and easily passed without noticing it, but worth a stop some time.  Don enjoyed not only the food but a thoughtful conversation with the proprietor.)  Think we also made it to Mountain View kitchen at 130 Water St.  (Tasty and healthy food.)  We often do.
Not that the foregoing exhausts our list of favorite eateries . . . ]


Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Speak Up, Las Cruces!" - What We Hope to Do

“Speak Up, Las Cruces!”

For two weeks now I’ve been saying that a lot, mostly during the hours of 8-10 a.m., Monday through Friday.

Keith Whelpley and I co-host a daily two-hour radio show called “Speak Up, Las Cruces!” on KOBE 1450. We first aired on Labor Day.

We took it on in the perhaps foolish hope that it could become a useful tool in the community’s ongoing dialogue with itself.

We discovered that we share certain assumptions: first, that we live in a community.  That community members can and will disagree, sometimes vigorously, without necessarily leaving – or tossing someone else out of – the community.  That communities, both in elections and otherwise, make decisions that affect the lives of their members; that decisions are better made when a community has the fairest, and most complete information; and that this sort of information is often best found, or developed, in frank but reasonably courteous discussion and debate.

While there will be shows in which Keith and I tallk with each other and our listeners who call in, we frequently bring in guests.  With a controversial issue like the gross receipts tax hike, the funding freeze on mental health providers, and same-sex marriage, we bring in knowledgeable people who disagree.  Aside from specific issues, we’re inviting community members we disagree with to spend time with us, if they’re willing, and let the listeners figure out what it all means, if anything.  (Among those count Neal Hooks, Tea Party representatives, and Steve Pearce.)

Wednesday we discussed same-sex marriage with: the newly famous Lynn Ellins, our County Clerk; Republican State Sen. Bill Sharer, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Ellins; Neal Hooks, a Sun-News Op-Ed Columnist who disagrees with Ellins as strongly as Sen. Sharer; and Carrie Hamblen, who’s the President of PFLAG Las Cruces and one-half of a newly-married couple.  Callers were free to question anyone, or comment.

Earlier that day, we had an hour-long, reflective conversation with the new Bishop, Oscar Cantú.  We wanted to introduce listeners to a prominent member of the community whom many, particularly non-Catholics, haven’t met.  (I’m far from being a Catholic, but thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and tend to think Bishop Cantú is a pretty good guy.)

Our vision, if I may over-dignify our hopes with that word, is that through honest and sometimes bold reportage, but with courtesy and respect toward guests, we can examine facts or situations – or bring together others who’ll do so – in a way that’s useful for all of us.

That’s a challenge.  We also want to have fun doing it and make it fun for our listeners.  We’ll do that through occasional flippancy and irreverence, a lot of goofy news items when we’re without guests, and an openness to all sorts of guests and all sorts of subjects.  We’ll have the mayor and senators on, but also a number of people who are lot less well known but just plain interesting.  The college basketball coach who went to Ireland to coach, so as to learn Irish fiddling, and ended up a writer, teaching at NMSU.  The guy who felt like making rainbows, and did, and now gets flown around to foreign countries to make rainbows.  A former Hollywood stunt man who as a youth gained a wealth of knowledge from the Mescaleros, is now developing an interesting breed of horse, and has also recently put out a book that isn’t really about any of those subjects.

Tuesday after a spirited discussion of the gross receipts tax with City Manager Robert Garza and City Councilor Miguel Silva, we talked with three members of Crossroads City Roller Derby.  Who would have supposed that a conversation about roller-blading would lead us into frank talk about how their sport had helped each of them in some profound way in their careers, including helping one of the three guests recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after eight years in the military?

If you’ve tune in, you know that our two weeks on radio have featured a comical series of mistakes (by me) and misfortunes in the technical end of what we’re doing.  Like most things, hosting a radio show takes a little more than outsiders might imagine.  The variety of things that can go wrong (including forgetting to put on headphones and then construing the silence as being off the air – or forgetting to turn off everyone’s mikes the moment a commercial starts and everyone mistakenly thinks s/he’s off-air and might say anything.)

But it’s fun.  Keith and I are both curious.  We’re also experienced reporters. Sometimes we feel like a couple of curious kids just given free reio their town and ask folks all sorts of things, serious and silly.

And there are light moments. Wednesday when I invited Keith to read the list of our sponsors, I led into it by asking him to “remind us who brings us here” – and instantly realized that when you use a phrase like that around the bishop, it’s capable of meaning someone other than your sponsors.  He’d had the same thought, and we kidded about it with the bishop.

But then, what do I know about who brought us there?

What started in hopes we could contribute to our community also turns out to be enough fun that we’ll keep letting it turn out lives upside-down for awhile, and see where it leads.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, September 15.

We really are interested in suggestions, criticisms, and what-not that could help us improve the show.  We have a Facebook page (if you're on Facebook, please search "Speak Up, Las Cruces" and "Friend" us or "like" us or post a comment) and even an email account at KOBE (send to peter and/or to keith  at

The Sun-News headlined the column "More than a Radio Show."  That bothered me, although I had to admit maybe that was what I was saying.  But I wasn't, exactly.  What I hope I said was that we hope it'll be a damn good radio show -- and, yes, more than a radio show.  A community water well where folks from all walks of life stop to drink, and gab.  A chance for each of us to connect with a whole lot of interesting folks with whom we share this valley but whom he don't know at all.  

But I'm selfish, too.  I'm curious, one of those guys who's always watching everything, overhearing everything, wondering how folks got the way they are and where they dream of going from here, and how the world looks to 'em.  I'm a curious guy, and journalism has often served as a way to satisfy curiosity without being impolite.  It gives me a socially acceptable reason to ask all sorts of folks all sorts of things.

Just walking through the market yesterday talked to half a dozen potential guests.  A fellow named Jerry whose mission is helping veterans with PTSD fit back in to our community.  An artist whose work we thoroughly enjoy, who stressed when I asked him about being on radio that God was a big part of what he does, and that if he came on the show that's something he'd be wanting to talk about -- that helping spread the Word would be why he'd come on.  I urged him to think about it, and he gently corrected me:  "I'll pray about it, he said."

I don't happen to share his religious views, or those of our delightful guest last Wednesday, Bishop Cantú; but I've noticed, in working sporadically on a documentary about folks who produce healthy food and sell it at the market here, that God is a major part of what they're doing and why they're doing it.  I find that interesting.

Rush Limbaugh (aside from wanting to promote Rush Limbaugh) has a set of positions he wants to convince you to take.
Well, I have some views too; but I also find a whole lot in the world that fills me with wonder, or sparks my curiosity, and so I want to check things out -- and, by doing so on radio, invite you to check 'em out with me, and share your thoughts by calling in.  
It's tough not to sit at home mornings with the hummingbirds and the beautiful morning light, rather than in a studio so small Lynn Ellins announced he had bigger closets; it's tough to be somewhere by 8 a.m. with some semblance of brains turned on; it's tough to crash early night after night; but the show is fun.  And I'm learning a new trade.]

Sunday, September 1, 2013

County Commission Knocks One Out of the Park

I had planned to devote this column to our new radio show (“Speak Up, Las Cruces!” weekdays from 8-10 a.m., starting tomorrow, Labor Day, on KOBE-1450) and our lunatic hope that it will improve the quality of our community’s dialogue with itself.

But Tuesday’s County Commission meeting hijacked my day, and my column.  I’ve criticized the Commissioners and likely will again, but I was glad that they chose to express their consciences in a non-binding resolution supporting Lynn Ellins’s acceptance of marriage-license applications from same-sex couples.

When I arrived at the meeting, I was startled to hear that they’d just voted 3-2 to remove the item from the day’s agenda, but would hear the public input from the overflow crowd.

There were two lines: one (in which probably half the folks were pastors) opposed the resolution; and the other (which also contained quite a few pastors) favored it.  After awhile the first line ran out of people, while the second line seemed inexhaustible.

There’s more to say about the subject than space permits, but . . .

First, Ellins – aided and abetted by a small group of advisors – did nothing more than his job.  He took an oath to uphold the Constitution.  Particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act and the NM Attorney General’s comments, it’s a reasonable interpretation of the the U.S. Constitution and/or the New Mexico Constitution that both prohibit discrimination against same-sex couples.   New Mexico law is silent on the subject. (So, by the way, was Jesus Christ, although he was frequently mentioned by opponents at the Commission meeting.)

Ellins, the two judges who’ve ordered other counties to follow suit, and the handful of other clerks doing so are all acting appropriately (as are clerks who, in the judicial and legislative silence, interpret the constitutions differently).  The appropriate way to challenge his actions would be a lawsuit, by someone with legal standing.

The Commission also acted appropriately.  It didn’t pass an ordinance.  It passed a resolution.  That’s basically an expression of opinion.  With the Legislature trying so hard not to face the question, Commissioners felt that such an expression might help.  Before making up their minds, they listened to hours of argument from citizens.

Folks on both sides spoke passionately.  I sympathize with the fear of change that ran through the comments by folks opposing the resolution.

I was a kid a long time ago.  Homosexuality wasn’t a major topic, but it was something most people disapproved of.  Same-sex marriage would have been almost as unthinkable as a black President.

So in one scale we have those fears: I won’t be able to tell my children gay love is unthinkable; I might have to see a gay couple holding hands or kissing, or have to decide whether my kid can stay overnight with a friend whose parents are same-sex.

In the other scale, we have the tremendous joy and relief of the newly-wed couples, many of whom have lived together for literally decades, loving each other and feeling their love trampled on by the law and public opinion; and the shared joy and relief of “straight” couples like Dael and me who couldn’t resist marrying but felt uneasy that not all couples could do so; and finally add the love and care I’ve seen in the eyes of gay friends with adopted children who, but for their two dads, would have grown up in an orphanage or on some Guatemalan street.

It ain’t close.

Two arguments I don’t credit are that Jesus wouldn’t approve and that marriage between same-sex couples somehow undermines the value or beauty of heterosexual marriage.

I feel that the beauty of marriage is undermined more by excluding otherwise loving and faithful couples from it because they’re same-sex.   If my marriage were so fragile that what other folks were doing in their marriages could affect it, I guess I’d be in trouble already.

And (aside from issues of separation of church and state) I can’t recall Jesus discussing the subject.  Mostly he seems to have favored including folks the surrounding society excluded, honoring the poor and the downtrodden, and offering love and gentleness in response to most kinds of provocation.  I heard one pastor Tuesday thank Ellins for allowing her to fulfill a career-long dream by marrying a same-sex couple.  Jesus as the Gospels portray him might have approved.

I do wonder what folks elsewhere think of a state that makes the national news first for a confederate flag in an Independence Day parade and then for starting to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Me, if I didn’t love the place already, that eclecticism would appeal to me – without endorsing the idea of putting up Confederate flags.

Tuesday the Commission put the resolution back on the agenda, and passed it by a 4-1 vote.  The endless chain of human stories, some told in tears, I found moving; but more moving was the realization that for once I was watching public sentiment help commissioners trying to decide what was right.

Six counties – including Santa Fe and Bernalillo, on judges’ orders – have followed our county’s lead.  Ultimately, acceptance of same-sex marriage is inevitable,  but Mr. Ellins may have materially altered the timing, at least in New Mexico.

Meanwhile I hope folks on both sides will express and discuss their views with us on the new radio show.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, September 1.]

I  had meant to write an extended blog post concerning the meeting, and the issue; but other commitments haven't left me the time.  I still hope to do that, because it was an important and interesting moment, whatever one's views, and also of some interest beyond the borders of Dona Ana County.
Those time constraints include starting some new legal work, putting up two photo shows, recuperating from knee-replacement surgery, and, above all, starting the new radio show.
The photo shows: "Fire and Ice", images from Iceland, opens Friday evening during the Art Ramble, September 6th, at the Big Picture on Main St.  I'll be there for the Opening; but I'm also putting up a show at Creative Harmony, a block away on Campo Street.  That one will be up fir three months and the formal "Opening" will be on the first Friday in November.  That one is from a series matching photographs with tanka poems.
The radio show:  I'll supplement this with a more detailed piece on what we hope to accomplish, but the basics are that I'll co-host "Speak Up, Las Cruces!" with Keith Whelpley on KOBE 1450 AM.  It's a news discussion show with listener call-in, but will also touch on the arts, sports, theater, gardening, the environment, interesting people we know around here, and just about everything else.  We're committed to getting diverse points of view represented on public issues, and to giving everyone a fair hearing.  We'll ask tough questions -- and encourage listeners to do the same -- but we believe that we can challenge others' ideas and political positions without rejecting those folks as people.  We're a community.  A community, like a family, ought to be able to talk frankly and hash out problems.  We hope that our radio show will contribute to our community's internal dialogue.
But it'll be a challenge!  We welcome suggestions -- for topics, for guests, for specific questions to scheduled guests, for additional features -- and invite folks to visit our Facebook page, where we'll have a schedule of upcoming topics and guests.  Go to Facebook and search Speak Up, Las Cruces if this link doesn't work:
Speak Up, Las Cruces
I'll try to post schedule here too later today.
Wish us luck!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

County Commission Muffs One

Maybe I should apologize for giving the Board of County Commissioners the benefit of the doubt regarding allegations of misconduct by county managers.

Some of those allegations won a unanimous jury verdict against the County in Granados.  Jurors found the County had created a hostile work environment for Mr. Granados, and ordered us to pay him $250,000 – plus his attorney fees.  This week the County lost its post-trial motions, and must now decide whether or not to appeal.  I’d guess that any appeal would merely delay the payoff and have us paying two sets of attorneys to argue arcane legal points.

It’s unlikely that an appeal would result in overturning the verdict.

Other allegations appear in complaints in several other lawsuits now headed toward trial. Serious findings appear in a 2010 Audit.  Other charges have been made to me privately, sometimes quite credibly.  I wasted substantial time sharing some of that information with the Commissioners on the lunatic hope that they had some sincere interest in doing the right thing.

Actually, I still think they did.

My first reaction to Tuesday’s “Memorandum” urging sainthood for Sue Padilla was that someone has been secretly remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers here in Doña Ana County.  (Either that or Commissioners were stealing my pain-killers while I recuperated.)  People who had spoken movingly of their hope to do the right thing then signed onto a whitewash.   Did the Commissioners get intimidated or get conned or just figure to leave it for the next county manager to clean up?

I don’t like writing this.  I have tremendous respect for Billy Garrett, and also great affection.   He’s a smart guy with good ideas and the County’s interest at heart; but if you’ll forgive me another silly analogy, he reminds me of the Tarot card that pictures a happy idealist wandering off a cliff.   He may be so intent on dealing with the serious problems and opportunities facing the County that he can’t force himself to look squarely at the internal problems alleged – like a guy so obsessed with getting where he’s going that he forgets to make sure his car has oil.

So what happened?  Maybe someone sold the Commissioners on the idea that the County’s chance of success in the upcoming trials hinges on the appearance that they unanimously believe that the jurors in Granados blew it.  That’s a reasonable position, though I’m not sure it’s the right one.  In effect, the Commission is circling the wagons – despite the cost to internal morale.  This could also hinder clear analysis of settlement possibilities in pending cases.

Their written statement seems to say that the County’s lawyers blew it.  They say that at the Granados trial the bad things said about Interim County Manager Sue Padilla were not rebutted.  Well, lawyers got paid $150 per hour or so to present such rebuttal.  I thought the lawyers tried hard to do so.  Therefore I have some difficulty understanding the Commissioners’ “Memorandum.” on this point.  There was “little testimony offered to dispute the negative characterizations of senior county managers”?  Well, either the lawyers missed it, and should be fired, or there really wasn’t much credible testimony of that sort to be had, in which case the Commission shouldn’t issue a Memorandum impugning the jurors or the court.  And since I didn’t see any Commissioners at trial, except one who testified briefly, how do they know what witnesses did and didn’t say?

The Commission thinks it’s “unfortunate” that there’s a “suspicion that some County managers may be unprofessional and vindictive”?  Well, it is unfortunate.  Trial testimony strongly indicated that such suspicion might be well-founded.  The Commissioners had a chance to do something about it: a truly independent investigation, not one run through the County Counsel’s Office.  They chose instead to rely on a report that some or all of them knew to be tainted and to make a strong statement that the jurors and the complaining former employees (many of whom are not plaintiffs in lawsuits) were all wrong.   Excuse me, but doesn’t the Commission’s conduct guarantee that suspicions will linger?

The Commission is concerned that “a second supposition is that poor employee performance and bad behavior will be tolerated because of the Granados verdict.”  Well, yeah.  The Commission has one employee, Sue Padilla.  Extensive sworn testimony to her poor performance will cost the county more than half a million bucks once it’s all added up; and the Commission is tolerating it.

Writing this column I feel a deep but vague sort of sadness.  Of course I empathize with present and former county employees who, when the Commission responded to Granados with an appearance of openness to face facts, felt unexpected hope things might improve.  Sure, I regret wasting substantial time trying, within the limits of journalistic confidentiality of sources, to share information with the Commission.  Yet neither explains quite why I feel so personally sad.

Above all, I feel sad for the Commissioners.  Barring the Body Snatchers explanation, some of them got conned or intimidated into a statement that ran against what they knew and felt.  That can’t feel good.

And I sympathize.  Commissioners were in a tough position – and getting advice from folks whom trial testimony tended to implicate in the problems they were deciding how to handle.  Me, I think they jumped the wrong way.


[The column above appeared this morning -- Sunday, 18 August -- in the Las Cruces Sun-News. Or at least, I'm told it did. I haven't yet seen my copy of the paper this morning.  I know the column appeared because I received a comment: 
"Your column made me cry actually. But, then again, after all they have put me through, I cry easily now. I have worked a lot of places in my lifetime but DAC has some wonderful and very capable employees. I guess what sets them apart to me from my past experience is that most of them "have a heart." You will hear them say things like, "what our constituents would like to see..." I have never heard a word about constituents from the top tier mind you, but definitely from clerks downstairs to the custodians to those filling our potholes. Many of them know who they work for (the constituents) and take pride in that trust placed with them. They don't take it for granted as I have seen in so many government settings in my life. As I have said countless times now, they deserve so much better."
They do.  I think things will improve in the foreseeable future, despite my disappointment with the commission's conduct described in the column.]

Sunday, August 4, 2013

State Freezes Funds and Leaves Public in the Dark

Let’s work this one out together.  Is the move by Governor Martinez to destroy several southern New Mexico mental health care providers good government or something else?

To put it another way, did Governor Martinez have to do this – or was her Administration looking for an excuse?  Score each paragraph below from 0 to 10.  Note down zero if it doesn’t at all tend to show this was a good-government move, 10 if the paragraph gives you serious pause for thought, or something in between.

The State hires an audit group, Public Consulting Group, to investigate possible fraud by the agencies, knowing that in North Carolina, Public Consulting did a similar audit and claimed $38 million in recoverable overpayments, but North Carolina’s state auditor found that the true figure was a little less than a tenth of that.

While most auditors discuss issues in detail and invite the subjects of the audit to point out facts or address possible problems, Public Consulting, according to folks here who got audited, made  no such efforts, but just came in to get files and folders without ever inviting or permitting any dialogue regarding the contents.

When the audit finishes, the State – knowing that a freeze of funds will essentially kill the mental health providers involved –  freezes funding, claiming the freeze was legally required, when in fact the federal laws and regulations gave the State discretion whether to freeze funds pending further inquiry.

Although experts would suggest that mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention clients might be those most in need of continuity in providers, the State determines that future needs here will be served by certain Arizona companies.

The State claims the audit (which started in mid-March, as far as one company knew, and reported a few weeks ago) requires it to engage folks from Arizona, on an emergency basis, when in fact the State had been talking with the Arizona folks as early as January, apparently well before any audit findings and perhaps before the audit even started.

The State claims that Optum Health, which had been overseeing the providers, reported the providers as fraudulent right from the start, but others say that’s not so – and point out that Optum’s own record-keeping inadequacies made Optum a nightmare to deal with and had elicited a $1 million fine a few years ago.

Although the New Mexico Public Records Act would appear to require release of the audit findings as a document of public interest, the State refuses, claiming that since it’s now turned the audit findings over to the Attorney General, the audit report is exempt as a criminal investigative report.

When the New Mexico State Auditor wants a look at the report, the State refuses; that is, the audit is good enough to destroy companies and perhaps lives over, but not solid enough to show trained and neutral eyes; and when the New Mexico judicial system orders the State to show the Auditor the report by a certain deadline, the State ignores the deadline – displaying a clean-cut scorn for legal constraints while insisting the mental health providers follow the law to the letter.

A competent, neutral examination of the detailed findings of the audit shows . . . oops, forgot.  We have no way of knowing what such an examination would show, because the State doesn’t think we’re grown up enough to have a look for ourselves.

If you’re scoring home, it can’t look too good for those of us looking for good government.

Many people are appalled.  When I ask folks about this situation, they reply with words like “hit” and “rape” and “scary.”

I don’t know how it’ll all turn out, or how it should.  

I do know that, to keep payroll going, Roque Garcia put up $50,000 he can’t well afford to lose.

However, it may turn out that his group and some or all of the others have been stealing.

But if the audit and funding freeze were righteous, why is the State so unwilling to show us so?  Can’t be fear that the mental health providers will have a better defense, because if the facts were so unmistakably damning, letting opposing lawyers see those facts today instead of next month oughtn’t to make much difference in the ultimate result.

Of course, too, given scarcity of funds, the State could reasonably have guessed that any providers which were wronged wouldn’t have enough chips to say in the game another round.  How can folks who can’t keep their doors open pay lawyers to do a top-notch job seeking justice for them?

I can’t help guessing that that disparity of resources played a role here.  Susana and Sidonie can spend your money and mine lawyering this for a decade.  They likely figure Roque and the others can’t.

These things touch our lives, sometimes deeply.  I don’t want to see this end without a full hearing.  Not only the mental health providers but you and I deserve to see this one well-lawyered on both sides.  If we were being taken, we deserve to know that.  If this is all a political attack, with very little real justification, we deserve to know that too.

Meanwhile, the providers have asked the Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal to enjoin the State from freezing funds pending some showing of justification.  The State is due to respond before this column appears.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 4 August 2013.]
        In case the column doesn't make this clear enough: I'm not saying the mental health providers aren't guilty.  I have no idea.  Some or all may be guilty of intentional fraud.  Some or all may be guilty of the kind of negligence and confusion in billing that amount to inaccuracies warranting some refund to the public coffers but not worth driving 'em out of existence.  Or maybe none are guilty of anything.
        Even the fact that the existing precedent (the North Carolina audit done by the same Boston consultant that got whittled down to less than 10 per cent of the claimed over-payments once the state auditor got a look at it) doesn't mean the same will happen here.
       What concerns me is the high-handed process.  What concerns me is the refusal to be reasonably frank with the public or even the New Mexico State Auditor.  What concerns me is the irregularities already apparent in the state government's conduct in this matter -- and its apparent refusal to follow the orders of a New Mexico court order mandating disclosure to the auditor.  
       Maybe everything the Martinez Administration did will turn out to have been justified; but if so, we deserve to know that.   (Unfortunately the spokesperson for the Department hasn't yet gotten back to me, so I can't even add in here the Department's best responses to some of the questions suggested in the column.)