Sunday, March 31, 2013


At dawn the other morning the birdbath was nearly empty from the previous day’s high winds, and what was left in it was frozen.

Yet the ocotillo beside it was shyly displaying little buds, the first sign of the bright red display it has planned for the return of the hummingbirds in a few weeks.   An old man who lived alone in Derry for a quarter-century kept records, and the first hummingbirds arrived the same day each year until a couple of years ago.  The ocotillo doesn’t keep notes, but knows very well when the hummingbirds will be around to assist in its reproductive cycle; and the ocotillo produces plenty of inviting nectar – and undoubtedly chose red not for our delight but to make sure the hummingbird didn’t neglect its duties.

I guess it must be spring.  Certainly the green-budding ash trees and a very few yellow wildflowers think so.  So does the dark iris that opened this morning, braving the winds.  Last night, as we watched the full moon peek over the mountains, the season’s first sphinx moth grazed my hand.  And swimming laps at NMSU’s outdoor pool is a suddenly wonderful again.

Spring, when Florida Gulf Coast University delights the sporting world by being this year’s Virginia Commonwealth, but more so, the baseball Giants’ Brandon Belt is tearing up the Cactus League, Las Cruces High is state basketball champion, and Austin Trout will unify the light middleweight boxing championship.

Spring, when an old man almost too stiff to walk limps around a rodeo arena photographing young cowboys and cowgirls roping calves, and cowboys riding broncs and bulls in preparation for rodeos.

Watching these young folks is a delight, partly because almost no one else is doing so.  A roadrunner prowls the nearby desert, and a few saddled horses stand around looking bored.  The Organ Mountains catching the afternoon sun, and bulls and broncos stand on the hill, outlined against the sky, waiting for their turns to toss riders around..

Part of the pleasure is the enjoyment of any athletic event, even one in which I’ve no knowledge of the skills and techniques involved.

Part of it is the mix of past and present.  A hundred years ago, most everyone could ride a horse.  In this part of the world, riding bucking broncos or bulls was a sport most young men at least tried.

Forty-some years ago, when I first arrived in Las Cruces, probably two-thirds of the male students in Corbett Center had cowboy hats on, although already a lower percentage of them could actually do the things these fellows are doing.

(That first autumn here I went to a rodeo.  At some point they had an audience-participation event: they placed a ribbon on a bull’s horn and let the bull go.  Anyone who could get the ribbon won a prize.  I was ready to try it, but the woman with me, from Aztec and wiser about these things, suggested I just watch.  A line of men stretched from one side of the arena to the other.  They released the bull.  The line parted, everyone ducking to one side as the bull raced down the center of the arena, then the line closed again with folks  showing their courage by running after the bull at a safe distance.  The bull ran straight across the arena and jumped the fence, much to everyone’s surprise, and they found him the next morning grazing outside Corbett Center.)

As a rancher told me at a branding a few months ago, “Used to be that when you needed extra hands you could walk into any decent-sized town and get ‘em off the street.  Now, the kids just don’t know much.”

Ranches are islands of tradition in a sea of Burger Chefs, nail salons, and office towers.

These kids are just having fun, testing themselves as we all do at that age, ribbing each other about failures and slapping hands over successes, exercising a skill they probably learned young – like a friend’s ten year old son at that branding, proud of his father roping calves from horseback and learning the skill of turning the roped calves over and holding them down.  At first he stood back tentatively, trying to look eager but visibly uncertain, but soon he was right in the middle of it, doing his part.

These kids are also a link to a past that grows more and more distant for us as a nation and for each of us as individuals.   Sadly.  It’s a special part of our past – for the country, because the frontier contributed mightily to the distinctiveness of our culture, even after it had disappeared, and for each of us who dreamed in childhood of the West.  Of the wide-open spaces, starry skies, and horses we still enjoy here in Doña Ana County.

Do these kids know that what’s usual for them ain’t at all usual for most of the population?  I haven’t asked, but  have guessed that in the way they walk I see at least a hint of defiant pride that they’re practicing these old-time skills in their walk and manner.

But mostly they’re intent on doing what they’re doing, and on doing it better today than yesterday.  By the way, their last rodeo here this spring will be April 26-28.

- 30 -            
[This column appeared today, Sunday, March 31 in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  There are a variety of photographs from the rodeo practice arenas below, if  you page down past this blog -- or click on Riding and Roping II and Riding and Roping I ]

Note: If it's geographically and otherwise convenient, and you're interested, in April I'll be showing photographs from Japan at the Aralia Gallery.  The images were shot in Japan last April, during Cherry Blossom Season, though they're not all of cherry blossoms.  Some feature a monastery, rickshaws, kimonos, and other traditional aspects of the culture there.  The show opens Friday, April 5, and I'll be there from 4-9.
The gallery is at 224 North Campo, just North of Las Cruces Avenue -- across Camp from the parking lot of the old city hall.
I'll be showing photos from Perú at the Branigan Cultural center from June 7th through July 27th.  In 2008 I spent more than six months driving around Perú, mostly in relatively untraveled areas.  It was a wonderful experience, and some of the images are worth a look -- not because I'm any great photographer, but because I was lucky enough to be in some beautiful and remote places most people don't get to.  On Saturday, June 22nd, at 1 p.m. I'll show slides of additional images and talk about the journey with whoever's there.]

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Riding and Roping II

The bulk of this post is more recent images of young folks riding and roping.

I should mention again the upcoming photo show of some of my images from Japan during Cherry Blossom Season (though few of the images are actually of the cherry blossoms, while others feature monks, kimonos, rickshaws, and other people and things reminiscent of old Japan.  Show opens at Aralia Gallery on April 5 -- we'll be there 5-9 p.m..  That's at 224 North Campo Street in Las Cruces.   

That is, of course, a very different world from the one below.

To me, of course, they are no different.  Just a world surrounding me, waiting to be turned into images.  Like a llama or an alpaca or a yak grazing all over the valley in search of nutrients, I graze all over the world ingesting images, with no more real thought or conscious purpose than the yak.  "Don't make me no never-mind," as they used to say in another long-ago world I knew.

And both the Japanese and the rodeo riders are a whole lot more polite than I normally am.

Each world, too, has one foot in the past and one in the present.  That's obvious in the images of Japan.  It's also true in the rodeo ring.  These young folks are very much of the present, not only in their spirit and energy but with their cell-phones and such.  What they are doing is very much of the present, preparing for imminent competitions.  But the West, and the ranches where you grow up learning to ride and rope, are stubborn islands in a modern sea filled with fast-food restaurants and office towers.  As a rancher was saying to me months ago before a branding, in earlier times when you needed extra hands you could go into any decent-sized town and grab off the street young guys who knew how to ride horses and drive cattle and rope anything that moved.  Now, he said sadly, it just ain't so anymore.  

Our frontier is part of us, as a people, and the West is part of many of us, from boyhood dreams; but we lost  the frontier more than a century and a quarter back, though it's still a strong influence; and my boyhood dreams were nearly as long ago.  What these young folks are doing is plenty of fun, and exhilarating, but it's also something I'm glad someone is still doing.  

Note: to view as slide show, click on first image [ or double-click ] and then use arrows to move through the enlarged images.  Please also note that a half-dozen earlier images were in the March 14 post -- to reach 'em, just page down through the newspaper column below.  Also: if you're in one of these images, and either want a copy or want me to take it down, please let me know.  If you're not in one of the images, but want to purchase one or more, contact me.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Question Regarding County Management

When a county gets sued, it hires lawyers to represent it. Normally, the county’s risk management official consults with county counsel and the New Mexico Association of Counties (NMAC) to select a lawyer. That lawyer then reports to the risk management person or in-house lawyer.

But suppose the county counsel is kind enough to agree to handle some of the cases himself, at $150 per hour, and NMAC appoints him. He’s then in the ethically challenging position of overseeing his own work.
As a county official, can he judge his performance as trial lawyer objectively? If the county loses a big case,  how does he evaluate whether the county should sue pat him on the back for a good try or sue him for malpractice?

The outside lawyer defending Doña Ana County in Slevin was County Counsel John W. Caldwell.

I am not saying that he committed malpractice, or that even Clarence Darrow could have won the case.
But serious questions were raised more than two years ago about the situation.

In Alvarado, the plaintiff was a deputy sheriff who drove his patrol car into an irrigation ditch. He claimed he’d been chasing a speeding car. A witness saw him drive into the water but saw no other car. He was terminated, and sued the County.

Sounds like a strong case for the County. Mr. Caldwell wrote on April 15, 2010 "Discovery is over. I think we should prevail at trial."

The County did not even get to trial on the procedural due process claim. The court granted plaintiff summary judgment because although Mr. Caldwell knew that the fired deputy was represented by a lawyer, the County sent an arbitration letter to the man without sending a copy to his lawyer. Mr. Caldwell says the Law Department didn’t send the letter, that Human Resources probably did – and also questions the court’s decision, noting that the plaintiff was a union-member with the assistance of the union, which was obligated to advise him..

The case settled for $42,000.

When an attorney or client misbehaves, the judge can order that client or attorney to pay money, including reimbursement of attorney fees.

In Bravo, the strip-search class action, the County was sanctioned $7,394 because Mr. Caldwell didn’t inform the judge or the opposing lawyers who traveled here for a pointless settlement conference about an settlement idea that the County Commissioners had decided against six days earlier. The Court based the sanction on "the total failure of defense counsel to notify Plaintiffs before the settlement conference."

Mr. Caldwell, who received more than $150,000 for his work on Bravo, disagrees with the order. He notes there had been no order that the county notify anyone, and also that the sanctions were against the county, not against him personally.

Sanctions and plaintiffs’ summary judgments occur in only a small percentage of the cases where litigants request them.

The County’s risk manager sent a memo citing these facts and questioning the relationship to top county management (but apparently not to the County Commission) in 2010, well before the Slevin trial. County Manager Brian Haines later ordered the risk manager to report directly to Mr. Caldwell. As one outside lawyer put it, "The guy who’s usually your quality-control person is reporting to [Mr. Caldwell.]" Mr. Caldwell says that he was not involved in this decision and that it was made months later, for unrelated reasons.

Slevin resulted in a huge judgment against the County. Mr. Caldwell should not necessarily be blamed for that. If he had some fault, so did many others.

Public documents and private comments raise other questions about Slevin. Shortly before trial, Mr. Caldwell filed an untimely motion asking the judge to recuse herself. She declined, both because the motion was so late and on substantive grounds. After trial, Mr. Caldwell renewed this motion, seeking a new trial. The judge denied it again, accusing the County of seeking "a second opportunity . . . to rehash arguments and to dress up arguments that previously failed." As to one county argument, the judge wrote that "to describe it as a stretch would be overly generous." (Mr. Caldwell says that he did not write the post-trial motion.)

If disqualifying Judge Vasquez was important, the County should have moved for it a year earlier. If it wasn’t a good motion, making it later risked irritating the judge for nothing, Mr. Caldwell says he was acting on instructions both in foregoing the motion early on, when it would have been clearly timely, and in filing it later.
More importantly, it appears that Slevin could have been settled before trial within insurance policy limits. It wasn’t. Hindsight is 20-20, so I’m reluctant to second-guess the county here; but there’s a strong appearance that the County didn’t take this case as seriously as it should have.

Even if Mr. Caldwell did a top-notch job on Slevin, the situation isn’t healthy. Although management received an independent legal opinion that the arrangement didn’t violate law or ethical rules, it’s unwise. Having an in-house lawyer help commissioners or management evaluate what the trial lawyer is telling them is important. County counsel or a risk manager can independently evaluate the trial lawyer’s work. They can help keep that work excellent and help the trial lawyer advise decision-makers clearly and effectively.

This unfortunate situation is part of a wider county management problem I’m looking into.

[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 17 March, headlined "County Counsel Shouldn't Also Be Handling Court Cases."  (Probably a better title than the one I typed in above.)  Since I uploaded a not-quite-final draft, there may be minor differences between the column as it appeared in print and the column as it appears above. 
Anyone interested in reading further should go to the Sun-News web-site and read Diana Alba Soular's article.  She gives a good, balanced account, including quotes from an interview with Mr. Fridenstine (the former risk manager mentioned above) and, with more space thant there is in a column, was able to quote extensively Mr. Caldwell's views, which (not surprisingly) differ substantially from mine.   Secondly, to anyone who looks to this site Sundays to read my column, apologies.  I was in the mountains, far away from newspapers and my computer, until this evening.]

A major point Mr. Caldwell makes in rebuttal to the foregoing is that not every entity (public or private) has an in-house counsel or can afford one.  That's true.  However, I'm not sure a large and growing county like Las Cruces should adopt questionable procedures just because some smaller counties may do so or have to do so; and if you have Mr. Caldwell, an experienced litigator, as in-house counsel, and a long list of $150/hr. trial counsel, why wouldn't you rather have someone else handling a major case and Mr. Caldwell coordinating with him or her as needed?  There are several good reasons you'd want to separate the roles, as most any experienced trial lawyer can tell you.

In any case, this is (regrettably) not the only question I have right now about county management.  I'm hearing some allegations that are too consistent and too credible to ignore, and I'm trying to check them out.

Meanwhile, on the drive back we crossed White Sands Missile Range just before sunset and saw not even a single hawk.  Used to be, as our friends kept mentioning during the drive, you'd see a hawk sitting on about every sixth telephone pole, scouting for supper.  If I had time (and more columns) I'd write one called "Where Have All the Hawks Gone?" -- a question we also heard discussed at a recent Audobon Society meeting we attended.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Riding and Roping

Shot the roping and riding images below one afternoon this week.  Fun.

P,S.: Show of images from Japan at Cherry Blossom season opens April 5, 5-9 p.m.. at Aralia Gallery, 224 North Campo St.

Very different world from those below, I guess.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Current NM Legislative Session

The present legislative session in Santa Fe has seen some sensible bills and some startling idiocies.

Proposing a pipeline carrying water from the Gila River to our area is beyond stupid, economically and ecologically.  It would destroy one river valley, cost zillions of dollars, and barely impact our long-term water problem.

If the bill is meant to spur folks over by the Gila to assert water rights that might otherwise go to Arizona, there’s gotta be a better way.

On sensible side, HB 286 would modernize penalties and fees oil companies pay.  The fees were set in 1935 - when the average annual wage was $1,108.   A dollar in 1935 was equivalent to about $16 now.  I’m not allowed to pay my speeding fines at 1935 rates.  (HB 286 would also strengthen enforcement by moving away from “self-enforcement” – the coyote guarding the chickens method.)

I liked Jeff Steinborn’s proposal (HJR 9) to have the UNM and NMSU Board of Regents consist of three elected and two appointed regents, plus a student-chosen student member and a faculty member chosen by the regular regents. (I’d prefer the faculty have some say.)

Rep. Mary Helen Garcia has publically explained her recent committee votes  against proposed constitutional amendments regarding same-sex marriage and the minimum wage.

Garcia explained that the legislative process should be respected, that it provided the best chance for citizen involvement, and that the constitutional amendatory process should be reserved for rare cases that require it.

Folks often use such “process” arguments to justify a vote that’s against fairness or likely to be controversial, but we don’t need a 600-page constitution.   Initiatives and constitutional amendments are great populist tools, but their overuse can be disastrous.  Citizens end up with too many ballot issues, most generating  battles between expensive, superficially persuasive, and wholly misleading TV commercials.

The minimum wage amendment would protect poor folks against inflation; I’d prefer that; but leaving the legislature free to decide when changes are warranted isn’t unreasonable.  I hope Rep Garcia votes for HB 416 (a one-time increase from $7.50 to $8.50) and that the Legislature will remove the amendments that would substantially limit its affect.

Gay marriage isn’t subject to changing economic factors and trends.  There’s a simple progression: marriage was once permitted only between a man and a woman of the same ethnicity, then was broadened to include mixed marriages, and will eventually include same-sex marriage.    Each year, same-sex marriage is favored by higher percentages of poll respondents , and recognized by more states.  As old fogies die off, the “controversy” will eventually evoke yawns.  New Mexico should get on with marriage fairness now.

The only two arguments against gay marriage are that “it wasn’t done in the past” and that “God doesn’t like it.”  Both arguments supported anti-miscegenation laws.  The argument based on God’s views doesn’t pass Constitutional muster, given our deep commitment to separation of church and state.  Jesus’s views on the subject unclear.   If God doesn’t like same-sex marriage, s/he doesn’t have to enter into one – or officiate at one.   HJR3's proposed amendment specifically protects religions that disapprove of such marriages from having to celebrate them.

  Reducing penalties for recreational use of marijuana makes sense.   Jail sentences for folks with small amounts are stupid: people doing no harm end up in jail, and taxpayers’ dollars feed, house, and guard them at a time when we must reduce unnecessary governmental expenditures.  (Would you rather educate kids or put hippies in jail?) This is one both leftists and the Tea Party ought to support!

The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted along party lines to recommend HB 465.  Republican Jason Harper is worried that with lighter penalties more people would drive under the influence of marijuana.

That’d beat having folks drive drunk.  Back in the 1960's a Scientific American article pointed out the vast difference: drunk drivers are more impaired than stoned drivers; and as the hours pass, the drunk driver’s impairment grows, while the stoned driver’s driving improves.  Many of us have witnessed this.  Democrat Emily Kane, a legislator and professional firefighter.  She says she’s responded to many accidents caused by alcohol, but none caused by marijuana.

Governor Martinez opposes liberalization; but a majority of New Mexicans favor small civil fines and no jail time for marijuana possession, while a narrow 52% majority favor legalizing grass for adults, and then regulating and taxing it.

And the two hot issues of holding back third graders and giving drivers’ licenses to undocumented foreigners?

Regarding third graders, I don’t see this as a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter, or whatever other banality you want to throw at it.  Kids certainly ought not to progress very far in school without becoming literate; but some sensitive or slow-developing kids could be psychologically damaged by repeating a grade, when some of them would probably catch up to their companions in a year or two if promoted.  I’d encourage schools to limit “social promotion”; but neither social promotion nor holding kids back is the right answer in every situation.

I’m not sure why the driver’s license is such a big deal, either way.

It makes some sense to give them licenses and make them insure their cars.

I also favor making restaurants selling out-of-state chile confess that mortifying fact on their menus.  Since the House approved that one unanimously, it’s probably unnecessary to opine on that.  But, jeez, I love our chile!

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 3 March, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, under a livelier headline: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the NM Legislature."]

Time will tell whether the column is overly kind to Mary Helen Garcia.  Votes against letting the people vote on amendments for same-sex marriage and a minimum wage that rises with inflation, as well as sponsoring the unsuccessful try to mandate holding kids back in the third grade if they don't read at a specified level, she does seem out-of-step with her party and much of her constituency.  

The rationales offered in her written explanation vary.  I'm not sure I agree that legislation -- rather than letting us vote on an amendment -- offers the best opportunity for citizen participation.  On the other hand, a "sound off" comment this morning criticized her statement that she believed constituents elected her to use her own judgement.  In general, I'd agree with her.  Part of the idea of having legislators is that it's too cumbersome to have everyone vote on everything, because if we all took the time to get educated regarding each issue, we'd never have time to make shoes or write columns or grow chiles.  Therefore we elect folks we trust and respect, and who share our values generally, and I agree with her that she should vote what she thinks is right, not what her constituents necessarily want, particularly on complex issues that not all of her constituents understand.   I would also urge her to use her judgement to vote for fairness and equality, even if her constituents were no sufficiently enlightened to share that judgement.  It's specifically her judgement with which I disagree here; and equal access to marriage ain't such a complex issue that she knows more about it than we do.

If you're interested in reading the texts of some of the bills discussed in the column, here's some help.  Checking on a few details for the column, I found myself at Legiscan, which seems a convenient place to learn sponsors, details, and the status of a bill or resolution -- in any state or in Congress.   Conveniently, you can search by bill number or key words.   At any rate, the following are links to download as pdf's the texts of bills you may want to read through:

For example, to download the full text of HB 286 click on its name and, in the new window that comes up, click on the orange text following the word "Download."  You can then view, print, or save the full-text.

To read SB 416, raising the minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.50 per hour, click on: SB416


To download full text of HB 426, click on HB 426 . Similarly:




Or for any other legislation, just go to the Legiscan site and search by the bill's name or a key word.