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.]

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