Sunday, June 30, 2013

Granados v Dona Ana County - Day 5

[Note: again, if you're a juror in this case DON"T READ THIS -- and if you know a juror in this case, please don't send him or her a link to this!   If you're not a juror, feel free.  This post covers the fifth day of trial, Friday.  If you haven't been following the case, there's some background in Tuesday's post  [Day 2], and in Diana Alba Soular's good article on the opening of the trial.)  You can also just page down to Thursday's post covering Day 4, or further down to the posts for Days 2 and 3.]

        It was another interesting day, which featured testimony by a former county employee and one current one that they'd experienced retaliation by the county and/or seen examples of discrimination.

        Friday morning began with the completion of Interim County Manager's Sue Padilla's direct examination -- and her cross by the lawyer for the County.  (In civil trials a party can call an adverse witness, and then the witness’s own lawyer actually does cross-examination.)
        Much of the testimony focused on the four basic reasons given Mr. Granados for termination of his county employment.   Plaintiff says his firing (which followed by two days a complaint he says he made to County Manager Brian Haines concerning Ms. Padilla) was on trumped-up charges, and that the real reason was to retaliate for his complaint concerning discrimination and a hostile work environment.   Defendant says there was ample reason to fire him, that it was unrelated to whatever complaints he may have made, and that some of the four specific grounds were more significant than they might look at first glance.
        To recap, the four grounds given for his June 2010 termination basically were:
        1. An occasion in mid-2008 when Ms. Padilla had told one of Mr. Granados's subordinates that for budgetary reasons a woman working under that subordinate could not attend certain training in Albuquerque; the woman felt that the training, while not required to get or keep any certification, was very important to her work; it started the following morning at 8; she volunteered to take time off and pay her own way; and Mr. Granados gave her permission.
             He received a reprimand for insubordination.  In his Pre-Termination Notice in 2010, he was cited for insubordination and dishonesty in connection with this training incident.  I understand the insubordination charge, but I haven't yet figured out what the alleged dishonesty was.
Ms. Padilla testified that recession had reduced revenues and required limiting non-necessary training.  She also testified that even if Ms. Guerrero offered to pay for her own training and travel, federal labor standards laws would require the county to reimburse her.
Ms. Padilla testified that this 2008 "training incident" offense was not by itself sufficient ground for Mr. Granados's termination.  However, she testified that it was important because Mr. Granados had disobeyed her, and those working under him would or might model their conduct on his.
         2. Alleged destruction of documents with regard to verbal warnings given two road foremen who apparently were heard shouting at each other.  Two frequent forms of discipline are the verbal warning (of which a written copy is kept in the warnee's department, but is not normally placed in his personnel file) and the written reprimand, which does go into the malefactor's personnel file.   The two road foremen received the lighter "verbal warnings", although there had been discussion of giving them reprimands.  Whichever they got, Mr. Granados was accused of destroying them, but brought copies with him to his Termination Hearing.
Ms. Padilla testified that although Mr. Granados had not destroyed documents reprimanding the two road foremen who shouted at each other, the shouting constituted work-place violence and required the County to follow particular procedures in case one of the participants later acted violently toward another someone while working for the county.
          3. The Jason Ireland Incident.  Jason Ireland worked on a road crew and spoke no Spanish.  Someone reported to Mr. Granados that Mr. Ireland felt overworked and was unhappy that mostly Spanish was spoken by his crew; he was transferred to a crew where mostly English was spoken.  According to Mr. Granados, he asked his immediate subordinate, the Road Manager, to follow up and check how things were going, then heard back that things were fine.
           The Pre-Termination Notice accused him of mishandling a discrimination or EEOC complaint by Mr. Ireland.
The Defense has indicated that Mr. Ireland had later filed an EEOC action for a second incident in which his co-workers allegedly talked about him in Spanish, possibly saying derogatory things.  However, this complaint apparently was filed after Mr. Granados’s departure, and there was no testimony that Mr. Granados had ever known about this or that he’d either observed discrimination against Mr. Ireland or been told about discrimination by Mr. Ireland.  Therefore it’s not clear to this observer how this incident contributes to his termination.
           4. At some point there were discussions of a presentation to honor the road crew, or perhaps the entire Public Works Department.  There was also some sentiment that such a presentation would be somewhat empty in the context of years without a raise.  A city consultant named Cliff Richardson either said or didn't say to Mr. Granados and some of his co-workers something to the effect that the presentation "would ring hollow" in the ears of workers who'd gone three years without a raise.
            The Pre-Termination Notice accused Mr. Granados of lying when he told management that the consultant had said this.  (Ms. Padilla testified that the consultant denied saying any such thing.)
At the Termination Hearing, a second worker presented a signed statement corroborating Mr. Granados's account.
Ms. Padilla testified today that the consultant denied saying any such thing.  She denied that she believed Mr. Richardson rather than Mr. Granados because Mr. Richardson is Caucasian.  She did not articulate her reason for believing Mr. Richardson.  However, the Defense also noted that this allegation was omitted from the post-Hearing letter explaining why Mr. Granados was fired.
(I do not have a copy of the Pre-Termination Notice or the letter explaining why Mr. Granados was fired.)
Ms. Padilla denied that there was a conflict of interest in Mr. Haines, who had signed the Pre-Termination Noice, acting as hearing officer.  Mr. Haines had also been the recipient of some of Mr. Granados’s complaints.
         On cross-examination by her lawyer, Raul Carrillos, Ms. Padilla also testified that the original complaint by Mr. Cordero (passed on by Mr. Granados) didn’t specifically reference a “protected class” so as to implicate EEOC procedural requirements.  On redirect plaintiff’s lawyer, Brett Duke, showed her the letter in which Mr. Cordero said he thought Ms. Padilla’s alleged harassment of his department was because its employees were “mostly minorities and less educated.”
Plaintiff has stressed that EEOC and Dona Ana County procedures forbid the person who allegedly discriminated from being part of the investigation or meeting with the complainant.   The Defense has emphasized that Ms. Padilla testified, and that Mr. Cordero testified, that everything was fine after a meeting among Ms. Padilla, Mr. Cordero, and Human Resources Director Kathe Stark.  (Whether jurors will credit this testimony, in light of Mr. Cordero’s continued employment under Ms. Padilla and confessed “nervousness” about the possibility of retaliaion, is of course uncertain.)
She also testified that the reason Mr. Granados first received a performance evaluation in October 2008, after the Cordero complaint, was that the county had been working on standard forms for such evaluations.

Brian Haines testified that Mr. Granados had initially done a very good job but that his work had begun to deteriorate in unspecified ways during 2008.  He denied that Mr. Granados had complained to him of harassment or discrimination.

Former Internal Affairs Investigator Kim Stewart testified by telephone from Ecuador, where she now lives.  Ms. Stewart is the Plaintiff in a separate lawsuit against the county regarding termination of her employment.
Ms. Stewart stated that she had observed relatiaion against employees who filed dsicrimination complaints, and that Leticia Benavidez had complained to her of retaliation by management against her.   She specified Ms. Padilla and County Attorney John W. Caldwell, alleging that an attempt to censure Commissioner. Benavidez had been in fact retaliation for her testimony in an earlier case in which “She told the truth as she saw it.”  (That suit, Ramirez, resulted in payments by the county to five women who alleged sexual harassment.)
On cross-examination, the County established that it had filed a counter-claim against Ms. Stewart alleging that she improperly divulged confidential information.

Commissioner Benavidez testified and, looking somewhat chastened, denied what Ms. Stewart had said.
She denied having seen discrimination or been the subject of retaliation by Ms. Padilla and Mr. Caldwell.
She denied having said that Ms. Padilla’s motives “were questionable sometimes.”  However, she conceded that in deposition in 2012, asked whether Ms. Padilla’s motives were sometimes questionable, she had replied “Yes, I think so.”
            Asked whether Mr. Caldwell had fabricated charges or been untruthful toward her, she replied, “I can’t say yes or no.”  In her deposition she apparently had replied “Yes.”
She was also asked about a meeting with Commissioners Benavidez and Karen Perez, in which Mr. Granados has alleged that he and Dicky Apodaca raised issues of discrimination by Ms. Padilla.  Asked if Mr. Apodaca had made such complaints, she replied, “No.”  Asked if Mr. Granados had done so, she replied, “I don’t recall.”

The final witness Friday was Brenda Biscaino.   Ms. Biscaino has been employed for 23 years with Dona Ana County.  She spent the first 22 years in Human Resources, becoming a Human Resources Administrator; but soon after Debra Weir replaced Kathy Stark as Human Resources Director, she filed an EEOC Complaint against Ms. Weir.  (The complaint was not successful.  However, she alleged that proper policies were not followed.)  In October 2012, she took a demotion and moved to the Detention Center, where she now works.
Asked why she’d left, she replied, “Because I could not work with unethical individuals anymore.”
Asked if she’d personally observed discrimination toward Hispanics, she replied “Different treatment, yes.”  Asked if Sue Padilla had discriminated against Hispanics, she replied, “To a certain point, yes.”  She also complained of favoritism.
As one example of discrimination she noted that although many maintenance workers speak only Spanish, Ms. Padilla ordered that no more interviews could be conducted in Spanish.
Asked whether as a human resources administrator she had observed retaliation in the workplace, she replied, “I’d have to say yes.”
She also testified that she, like Mr. Granados, had complained to Commissioner Perez and been advised that “I would have consequences if they knew.  I would be retaliated against.”
She was asked if she had complained to Commissioner Perez specifically of Sue Padilla retaliating against her.  She testified that “My complaint was against Deborah Weir, Sue Padilla, and John Caldwell.”  When it was elicited that Commissioner Perez had replied that she would have to speak to the County Attorney (Mr. Caldwell), Ms. Biscaino stated, “That defeats the complaint, if it’s against upper management.”
On cross-examination she was asked regarding her testimony that she “felt pushed out” of Human Resources whether she had complained.  “Who was I going to complain to?” she replied. However, she conceded that she did not file any state or federal claim.
She was also asked on cross if she had once been reprimanded for falsifying a benefits application, and replied, “That’s incorrect.”  She was asked if she had been subjected to a disciplinary action for giving false information in a deposition, and replied, “No.”
Plaintiff is expected to rest Monday morning, after calling Internal Affairs Investigator Lupe Quezada and Plaintiff’s wife, Juanita Granados.
Defendant will then present its case, and may recall some witnesses and/or call the three road foremen mentioned in testimony, Ms. Weir, Ms. Perez, and others.
Jurors have been warned that the trial, including their deliberations, may well continue into Wednesday, July 3rd.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Granados v Dona Ana County Day 4

[Again, PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS if you are a juror in the case.  It's one observer's view.  You absolutely should not look at it -- particularly since it might include extraneous information that's not part of the case as tried.  If you are a friend, relative, or spouse of a juror and happen to see this, please do not even mention this to him or her until after the trial is over.   It would waste a bunch of public funds if this case had to be retried months from now. 
So please do not read this or any other accounts of the trial.
If you're not a juror, feel free.  This is a very rushed account of a very full day, but I hope it's coherent. (For background: Tuesday's post  covered Day 2, and provides basic information on the case, as does Diana Alba Soular's good article on the opening of the trial.)  Yesterday's post covered Day 3.]

         County citizens listening to today's testimony would not feel particularly proud of county management.
         Three county employees, each of whom admitted some level of concern about possible retaliation by the county, testified to facts that provided varying levels of support for Plaintiff Jorge Granados's claim of ethnic discrimination and illegal retaliation.
         Then former DAC Internal Auditor Milton Duran testified to doing a specially expedited audit of the Public Works Department and finding no misappropriation, no misconduct, no suspected misuse of funds, and nothing material.  He said Ms. Padilla had reacted with disappointment, questioning whether he'd done all he could, whereas most managers are pleased by a clean bill of health from an auditor; he contrasted this with his audit of Health and Social Services, where he'd found misuse of funds, possibly illegal, and that while the HSSD director remained in her job, the County had quickly gotten rid of the young Hispanic "whistleblowers" who'd given him true information; and he said he'd seen then-County Manager Brian Haines and then-Assistant County Manager Sue Padilla demean Granados at meetings.
         Finally, Interim County Manager Sue Padilla started her testimony.  If there's a chief 'villain" in Plaintiff's portrait of the county, it's she.  When her name was announced, the jury sat up straighter in anticipation and one or two murmured an involuntary "ooohh."   However, her testimony so far involved preliminary matters.  If the jurors found that disappointing as drama, it was compounded by a couple of times when she and the examining attorney from Plaintiff's side both got honestly confused about what was going on.   (There was time for a question-and-answer establishing that while her married name is a Hispanic name, her husband's family comes from Spain, not Mexico.)

         Up first this morning was Defendant's cross-examination of county employee Robert Armijo.  (As discussed in last night's blog post, Mr. Armijo had conceded very frankly that he feared possible retaliation by the County if his testimony were not to the County's liking.)
         Defendant made a strong effort to negate Armijo's damaging testimony concerning whether or not county consultant Cliff Richardson said that a presentation honoring road workers would "ring hollow when the county hasn't given them a raise for years."    (The importance of the conversation was that Mr. Granados had said it happened; but then one of the grounds for firing him seemed to be an allegation that he'd lied when he said that.)
         Counsel showed that Mr. Armijo's notes for Road Meetings didn't include notes for a meeting on May 6, 2010 the day he'd said the comment was made at such a meeting.  Counsel also pointed out that Armijo's 2010 written statement didn't contain the words "ring hollow."  The statement read, "Mr. Richardson said something to the effect that management's and county commissioners' cannot claim to value employees . . . and not give pay raises for them years in a row," adding that while he wasn't sure of the precise phrasing, "I believe that the message of his words were that management and the Board of County Commissioners cannot claim to support and stand behind the employees of Dona Ana Couny when they are acting in a contrary manner to their words."
         Despite questioning by Defendant, he insisted he recalled the discussion.
         Regarding Sue Padilla's conduct toward his department, he said "couldn't say" that her "bias" and "vindictiveness" was race-based.  Regarding Mr. Granados's informal complaints about being discriminated against, he said that "happened more after he was terminated" than before.
         Redirect started simply:
          Q. You have not complained of discrimination, have you?
          A. I don't recall having complained about discrimination to upper management.
          Q. And you still have your job, correct?
          A. Yes.
          Q. And you never complaiend re hostile work environment?
          A. Not directrly, no sir.
          Q. And you still have your job?
          A. Yes.
          He was then shown Mr. Granados's pre-termination notice, which related the allegation of dishonesty, apparently with regard to the Richardson conversation.  He was asked whether he 'd been aware Mr. Granados had been fired based partly on an allegation  that Mr. Richardson never said what Granados claimed he had.   He was surprised.
            Q. Do you find that odd?
            A. Yes.
            Q. If a person is being fired by someone, shouldn't the person doing the firing investigate the reasons?"
            A. Yes.
            He was then asked about the discrimination/retaliation issues.  He neither admitted discrimination by the county nor denied it.  Asked to confirm that he was "not telling the jury there was no retaliation, right?" he responded, "That's correct, yes."
            When the questioning touched again on retaliation, and whether he felt some tension in testifying in a case between his "mentor" and his employer, he testified "I have a feeling there may be [retaliation]."
             Asked [though my notes aren't clear whether this was today or in earlier sworn testimony quoted today]  if there was anything else he considered retaliation, he replied "Just him getting fired."

             Next up was Albert Racelli, who works on grants and has been with the county for 25 years.      
             He testified concerning an affidavit he'd signed trstifying that Ms. Padilla "accused me of lying, cheating, and being incompetent"; that she'd denied him approval for training when others, many of them Anglos, got "more elaborate travel" approved; that "I strongly believe these acts by Ms. Padilla against me are based on discrimination," and that she had replaced minority employees with Caucasians."
             He also said that he saw Mr. Granados almost daily during Plaintiff's employment by the County, and that he "was very professional, brought a whole new way of thinking about the work, . . . and much-needed new thinking into the engineering department.  He termed him "the epitome of a good leader who recognized problems and tried to address them head on."
              As to honesty, he said "I've never seen any dishosety or any conniving or being less than honest and truthful" from Mr. Granados.
              Asked if he could say the same of Ms. Padilla, he said, "Unfortunately, I cannot.  I cannot, I'm sorry."
              However, there has been testimony suggesting that he and Ms. Padilla had clashed earlier in the utilities department, when she ran that, and that the clash might have caused him to transfer.
              Regarding her allegedly targeting the Department of Public Works because of the high concentration of Mexican-Americans, he said it was "not so overt as 'We just don't like you people,' but that budgets were drastically cut, without explanation, despite the department's successes. It was "always indirect," he testified.  ":The people who are doing these things are a lot more sophisticated than that."
              On cross-examination, Defendant established that Raceli's sworn affidavit had initially been written, and proffered to him, by Mr. Granados; that Mr. Raceli had made unidentified changes to it; and that he couldn't recall with certainty a notary public, although the document appeared to have been notarized.
              When he was pressed on facts regarding harm to him from alleged discrimination, he said, "I'm not asking for anything.  I'm just quietly accepting what's happening.  I'm not making a fuss over anything."
              Told it was his obligation to report discrimination if he indeed saw it, he replied "How many people would complain to the very people who were in control?"
              Cross-examination also esablished that he had been accused by Ms. Padilla, many years ago, of lying to the Board of county Commissioners.  Asked if he'd been found guilty, he said "there was no trial, no attorneys" and "a biased investigation" by someone appointed by the County Manager.   The hearing officer found him guilty of lying.   Redirect established that this incident had occurred ten years ago, and that Raceli "told the truth to the Board of County Commissioners" and stood by what he'd said.

              Third came Dickie Apodaca, the Road Superintendent.  A native of Garfield, he was a lot less inclined to say that testimony unpalatable to the county could lead to retaliation.  After denying he was afraid to testify because of possible retaliation by the county, he said, "I'm not afraid, but I know it can happen, because it has happened before."
              He generally denied any awareness of ethnic discrimination, improper retaliation, or any other misconduct my his superiors, but did say Mr. Granados had mentioned discrimination to him "quite a bit" and that Mr. Granados "seemed to be truthful."
              His testimony on one issue, whether or not one Jason Ireland had actually complained of discrimination, his testimony tended to help Plaintiff.  Ireland "didn't like Victor Valles speaking in Spanish" to him.  Mr. Apodaca didn't think of it as discrimination, and told Mr. Valles to give instructions to Mr. Ireland in English.  He said Ireland "was never discriminated against" and confirmed that no one had told Mr. Granados that Ireland had been discriminated against.
              He said Sue Padilla came to his oiffice and said that Valles should be disciplined for speaking Spanish to Mr. Ireland.  Apodaca said he didn't do anything wrong.  Ms. Padilla allegedly told Mr. Apodaca to make him go to anger management classes.  Mr. Apodca said he told her that if he did that he'd have to send all the supervisors to the classes.

          Then came Duran's testimony.  It was not positive about the County.  Notably, he testified that when he did his job, and turned up information management didn't want to here, bad things happened to him; but that he failed to find any major problems at the Department of Public Works when he did an audit Ms. Padilla had sought to have expedited.  (Plaintiff Granados was Director of DPW at the time.)
          "In my opinion, she was disappointed there were not more things -- bad things -- to report."  He said this was unusual, because more often managers welcome such findings.  Instead, Ms Padilla "was very disappointed and questioned me whether I had done enough digging."
          Asked on cross whether Ms. Padilla could merely be expressing suprise that "Gee, after all the citizen complaints" there was no problem, Mr. Duran replied quietly, "it would have been nice if I had heard that.  She verbalized that I had not found anything and questioned my procedures and my testing. .Later he said she "kept drilling me, did I do any additional work?" . She appeared to him to have hoped for a finding of misappropriation or other misconduct "in order to take some action."
          By contrast his HSSD Audit had turned up Level 3 findings, including a stiuation where there were funds from some separate source earmarked for DWI, and Director Sylvia Sierra had moved the funds out of that area into other functions to support the growth of those functions.  He said the law was very specific that the funds must be used for the specific program they're earmarked for.
           The HSSD Director remains in her position.  However "four Hispanic ladies" who had been frank and honest with him were "very shortly asked to resign or moved out."  He added, "I had told them I would try to protect them as whistleblowers," against management.
            Asked if he'd personally observed discrimination by Ms. Padilla against Mr. Granados, he said he had.  He cited monthly commission open forums where the commissioners heard from management.  Several times, he said, he saw Ms. Padilla and Mr. Haines treat Mr. Granados poorly in public.  The treated him "unprofessionally . . . when he was speaking they would look at each other and on ocasion make faces . . . it was very demeaning.  With other personnel they didn't act that way."
          On cross, Defendant established that Mr. Duran had been reprimanded by County Counsel for "discourtesy" in what had initially been an allegation of sexual harassment, and later for a breach of human resources rules involving inappropriate disclosure of confidential information.  Mr. Duran denied that the sexual harassment/discourtesy charge had any validity.  Defendant also established that Mr. Duran had voluntarily relinquished his CPA license in 1996.
            Tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. Ms. Padilla will continue her testimony.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Granados v. Dona Ana County -- Day 3

[Again, PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS if you are a juror in the case.  It's one observer's view of the day, and you absolutely should not look at it -- particularly since it might include extraneous information that's not part of the case as tried.  If you are a friend, relative, or spouse of a juror and happen to see this, please do not even mention this to him or her until after the trial is over.  The fact that there are now no alternate jurors makes this even more important!  It would waste a bunch of public funds if this case had to be retried months from now. 
So please do not read this or any other accounts of the trial.
If you're not a juror, I hope this rushed account of a very full day interests you. (For background: Yesterday's post  Yesterday's post covered Day 2, and provides basic information on the case, as does Diana Alba Soular's good article on the opening of the trial.)]

      Today was a much more mixed trial day, with plenty of ups and downs for each side.
      Picture an NBA game with one-sided runs by each team.  Or think back to watching Austin Trout's most recent fight.  As with the boxers, the lawyers mixed it up today, with flurries of punches and counterpunches, some wildly off target but some hitting home, though nobody scored a knockout."   The twelve referees who count, the ones sitting in the jury box, took it all in with poker faces.

      In summary:
      Before the jurors came in, Defendant pursued the argument that the Court has no jurisdiction because the  lawsuit Complaint doesn't match up adequately with the EEOC Complaint.  The judge disagreed again, and appeared a little tired of hearing the argument.
      Defendant (the County) scored some points during hours of cross-examination of Plaintiff Jorge Granados.
      Plaintiff neutralized quite a few of those points during redirect examination.
      Defendant again moved for a mistrial, this time based on Defendant's interpretation of a ruling by Judge Arrieta against testimony describing what the testimony would be of individuals who weren't available.  The County argued that this meant that since Mr. Granados had testified regarding things various commissioners and others had said to him, there should be a mistrial for violation of that order.  It sounded like a stretch, and Judge Manuel Arrieta clearly thought so too.  Again he denied the mistrial motion.
      Two county employees testified.   One seemed a modest help to Plaintiff during direct, but got neutralized on cross; and with the other Plaintiff seemed to land a series of strong blows.  Cross-examination will start tomorrow morning.
      Both county witnesses, one more strongly than the other, spoke of fears of possible retaliation by their employers (based on part observations or "gut feelings" rather than any explicit threats), and Judge Arrieta afterward cautioned both counsel to remind their respective clients "that we're all professionals here, and we all know the laws" and that "there should not be any repercussions for testimony."  Meanwhile, the "nervousness" of the witnesses may or may not have led jurors to give a little extra weight to those witnesses' testimony against the County.
      Watching reminds me what fun it would be to be lawyer for one side or the other.
      But I wouldn't want to be a juror.  As the wind way or the other, and the same witness says something (sounding sincere) under direct then says somewhat the opposite (sounding equally sincere) under cross, how do you score that?
      And I wouldn't want to be a witness.   It's pretty obvious that today's two witnesses sympathized largely or wholly with Plaintiff's view of events in 2009 and 2010.  It's equally obvious that they're still employed by Defendant and report ultimately to Sue Padilla, the person against whom discrimination and retaliation are repeatedly alleged.  I mean to imply no misconduct on anyone's part when I say that few of us would want to be in that position.   It was pretty clear on Armando Cordero's face that he would have liked to be pretty much anywhere else than that witness chair.
      Defendant's counsel may feel the same way.  Defendants often move for mistrials; but two in a row, on somewhat weak grounds?  Gotta wonder if Defendant's lawyers have doubts about how the trial is going.  If they felt they were winning big, they'd hardly want to give the other side a mulligan for the other side.  (On the other hand, lawyers make a lot of questionable arguments, sometimes to protect the record for possible appeal.)
       But, again, it's early.  It's still Plaintiff's innings.  We're hearing the witnesses Plaintiff has chosen to call first.

       In more detail:
       Mr. Carrillo landed some significant blows in his cross-examination of Plaintiff.
       It looked as if the Judge thought some of the early ones might be low blows.    Several times he interrupted to initiate a sidebar.  Sidebars (where judge and both sides' lawyers confer in whispers, with jurors still in the room) are usually requested by one side or the other.  Judge Arrieta initiated several within a short span of time.  His face and tone betrayed nothing to the jurors, but unless he was emailing his bookie and wanted both counsel's advice on horses to pick in the next race, why would he call repeated sidebars except to raise a question about the cross-examination?  (Some questions sounded unfair to me; but that's often a quite normal part of cross-examination.)
       Later in the morning he scored blows that probably counted.  They were fair and legitimate questions, and the answers weakened Plaintiff's case.
      A friend of mine (like Plaintiff a locally-raised Hispanic male who formerly worked for local government here!) watched an hour and remarked at lunch that "He [Carrillo] is really doing well!"  I agreed.
      Mr. Granados contends that Ms. Padilla began retaliating against him and his department after he passed up the line a discrimination / hostile work environment complaint against Ms. Padilla by Armando Cordero, who worked under his supervision.  
      Today, Mr. Carrillo sought to establish that the relationship between Granados and Padilla had soured earlier.  He questioned Mr. Granados about a 2007 email from Ms. Padilla about using a county car that had no county seal on it  However when he referred to it as a "reprimand" (although it did not appear to be a reprimand as that term is used in County manuals) Judge Arrieta stepped in to ask how he was "defining the word 'reprimand' here."
      He also questioned Mr. Granados as to whether the word "culture," which had been used by Ms. Padilla, necessarily meant "the Hispanic culture" as Mr. Granados claimed, or could have meant just the culture of the Road Department.
      Regarding testimony that Ms. Padilla had made a joke about Mexican people partying at funerals, he asked whether there were any other specific and direct remarks she'd made that Mr. Granados believed belittled Hispanics.  Then, when Mr. Granados couldn't recall any, he asked whether Irish and other cultures also partied at funerals.
       One issue has been the County's claim that rather than replacing Mr. Granados with an Anglo, it did away with his position, based on a consultant's objective recommendation,    Mr. Granados has testified to being shown or told about -- while on pre-termination suspension -- a draft in which his position was abolished.  Mr. Carrillo asked questions suggesting that suggested that the consultant had concluded, even in the draft report, that Mr. Granados's management style was a problem and that he was disorganized.  He also effectively left observers wondering whether in fact the draft report had still included the Director of Public Works position, as Mr. Granados claimed.
       But a few hours later Robert Armijo testified that the draft had indeed had retained the position, and that management had snatched up all copies of the draft immediately, just days before Mr. Granados's termination hearing.    The final report abolished the position.  No one has established that the "snatching-up" of reports was directly related to Mr. Granados.
       The same consultant, according to Mr. Granados, had said of a proposed move to honor Public Works employees that it would "ring hollow with them when they haven't gotten raises for years."  Mr. Granados had reported the conversation to management, and his alleged lack of "honesty and truthfulness" regarding it was one reason given for his termination.
       Mr. Carrillo stirred up significant doubt that this conversation ever occurred; but again, hours later, Mr. Armijo testified that he'd been present for that conversation, and that while he couldn't swear to precise words, "ring hollow" sounded right and the basic message was that . . .
       Mr. Granados had testified to County Commissioners, particularly Leticia Benavidez, being afraid to get involved because of an earlier which there was a move to censure Ms. Benavidez.for alleged involvement in a personnel matter.
       Mr. Carrillo asked skeptically -- and, I think, effectively for the jurors -- how Mr. Granados could be saying that County Commissioners, who hire and fire the city manager, could be so intimidated by management.
       Most tellingly, with regard to the accusation of discrimination by Ms. Padilla against Hispanic males, Mr. Carrillo elicited the admission by Mr. Granados that Ms. Padilla was married to one.
       With regard to evidence that Robert Armijo had been paid less than an Anglo who worked under him, Mr. Carrillo appeared to establish that Mr. Granados himself had set that up.

      Then after lunch Plaintiff's counsel, Ms. Labinoti, did a good job in redirect of neutralizing many of the points Mr. Carrillo had made.
       With regard to allegations that state officials said Mr. Granados was hard to work with, she established that Granados, from his experience in California, knew that the entity that receives a federal grant for infrastructure has to maintain that infrastructure.  The state was trying to shift that responsibility onto the Dona Ana County taxpayers.  Mr. Granados challenged that, and said the County Manager (Brian Haines) and County Commission.were "100% behind me."
        Concerning the basic issue of whether he was fired for performance or as retaliation, she reiterated effectively that he'd never received an evaluation until 2008 -- one day after he'd complained to Brian Haines about Sue Padilla and two days after he'd complained to an interim HR Director.
         At 2:30 p.m., Armando Cordero testified.  He admitted to nervousness that "if something goes wrong today I may get penalized."
          He confirmed making the "hostile work environment" claim against Ms. Padilla that Mr. Granados had passed up the chain; but he said or implied that maybe he didn't really mean discrimination.  Shown language he'd written saying Ms. Padilla created a hostile work environment for him and his staff because his staff were "mostly minorities and less educated," he acknowledged it but still said it might not be discrimination based on race.  He testified that he'd filed the complaint after a training session on racial discrimination, and had been inspired by that training session, but still hemmed and hawed about whether he really meant discrimination.
           He also testified that he'd met with Ms. Padilla and the Human Resources Director, that Ms. Padilla had "said she didn't realize she was being hostile,"  and that "things were 100% better after that meeting.
           He testified that Mr. Granados was a truthful man. He also testified that when Mr. Granados had filed suit, Mr. Cordero had declined to participate at least in part because he then planned to retire in 2014 and wanted to make sure he finished his career with the  county.
           On cross he was asked whether he believed his complaint against Ms. Padilla arose from discrimination based on race or national origin, and replied "No, sir."  He also said he didn't see Ms. Padilla discriminate against Hispanics, but that she was "super-picky about staff's work."
           On redirect by Plaintiff's counsel, Brett Duke, he conceded that the seminars on discrimination, and the county policy provisions he'd read on the subject, hadn't concerned "pickiness," but racial discrimination.
           On balance, if his testimony was the fourth round of a fight, you'd score it even -- although if the jurors take the pro-county portions of his testimony with more than a grain of salt because of his employment or the way his testimony tends to conflict in spirit with what they've heard and read of him, maybe he helps Plaintiff.
            The day's final witness, Mr. Armijo, clearly helps Plaintiff -- but hasn't yet undergone cross-examination.
            Mr. Armjio, who's worked at the county nearly 12 years, was more forthcoming about his fears of possible retaliation.  Unlike Cordero, who confessed only to "nervousness" but denied "fear," Armijo called it a fear based on "gut feeling.  No one says it but its there, in the back of my mind."  Asked if the fear was based on past experience and what he's seen, he replied "That would be fair, yes."
        Despite that acknowledged fear, he testified that there was a bias against Mr. Granados; that Ms. Padilla treated different groups of people differently, including Hispanics.   He necessarily acknowledged that he'd written "In later years that I have known Sue Padilla, I have noticed things that individually seem inconsequentail but when looked at as a hole may show a bias against me and my employees" and "her criticism . . . is focused on their personalities, such as [alleged] lack of people skills, rudeness, and lying."
He 'felt there was a bias" but "I don't know if I'd say discrimination."  He testified that she was biased against the Department of Public Works, which was predominantly Hispanic.  Asked whether she showed a general vindictiveness against Jorge Granados and the department, he replied "it appeared to be vindictive." Did she treat the people in the department with a lack of respect? "At times." Unprofessionally? "At times."
         He also testified, inconveniently for his employer, that he'd read the draft MAI report, that it had still showed Mr. Granados's position before being "recalled" by management -- and that the consultant, Cliff Richardson, had, as claimed by Mr. Granados, said something like that "presentations would ring hollow" with workers who hadn't received raises for years.
          Trial continues at 8:30 a.m. Thursday with cross-examination of Mr. Armijo.

          So what's it all mean?
          First of all, you never know until it's over.  You never know how a jury feels until they've discussed it and reported the result.
          As an outside observed, I can say this:
          It's at best odd that Mr. Granados, who supervised a vast number of employees for CalTrans before he came here, and did so (so far as we know) successfully, seemed perfectly successful here until immediately after he passed on Mr. Cordero's complaint regarding a hostile work environment.   He clearly made a nuisance of himself to his superiors thereafter -- fighting for his staff, as he put it yesterday.  However, Defendant may manage to show that it was primarily a personality conflict with Ms. Padilla, aggravated by jealousy that she was promoted to a position above him.
          The reasons given for his firing just don't stack up.   (However, I've got other county departments and situations to compare it with, as the jury may not.)
          He was accused of destroying documents concerning a "verbal reprimand" he gave two road foremen..  It now seems pretty obvious that he didn't.  Defendant has retreated to a claim that he didn't use the right forms or didn't fill them out right or something.  Not a firing offense in most sane environments.
           He was accused of "insubordination and dishonesty" regarding the training incident (aka "the Angie incident").  He may well have been insubordinate.  Cordero and Guerrero approached him the day before the training was due to start, and had to be in Albuquerque at 8 the following morning if they were going.  She volunteered to pay her own way.  He might well argue that he took Ms. Padilla's disapproval as covering only a paid trip to the training.  On the other hand, Defendant will argue that he knew full well that he was doing something his boss wouldn't like; and if he knew Ms. Guerrero would later put in for reimbursement or seek to be paid for the time, Defendant can argue he was dishonest -- in a matter far smaller than what the internal auditor found in another department, where the director remains in place.
            The allegation of untruthfulness or dishonesty regarding Cliff Richardson looks tough to substantiate.  Granados says the guy said it.  Armijo, despite concerns about his employment, says the guy said it.  Even if the guy comes in now and denies it, will he convince anyone?
             The fourth allegation is that he failed to file an EEOC report regarding an Anglo working under one of his supervisees.   Technically, it's a questionable basis for firing someone because he had a duty to file such a report only if he learned of possible discrimination directly from the complainant or by personal observation.  .There's serious question whether it was discrimination, or was presented to Granados as such.  He says it wasn't.  He says the subordinate who told him about it never mentioned discrimination.  He says he was told that the man was complaining he was overworked and complaining that his crew mostly spoke Spanish, which he didn't understand.  Mr. Granados says they solved the problem by putting the fellow in a crew where mostly English was spoken, and that he instructed the subordinate to follow up on things -- and that the subordinate reported everything was fine.  Further, he never met the supposed complainant.  Thus he didn't hear it directly from the complainant or personally observe it.  Even if one of these points isn't accurate, and even if the Anglo comes in and says he thought the problem was discrimination, so what?  It'd be a weak ground for firing someone after many years, even if Defendant's allegations are correct.  Unless the Anglo comes in and says he told Granados directly, making Granados look like a perjurer, it just doesn't seem weighty.
        Again, this is how it looks to me now.  Might look different tomorrow or Friday, depending on what the evidence the Defendant presents.  Might look different to the jurors right now.  (Besides, I've never had a chance to read the entire document stating the termnation grounds, but have taken notes when parts of it have been shown briefly on a screen in the courtroom.)
        Further, Plaintiff can't win merely by proving (if it does) that Ms. Padilla was a nasty and vindictive boss.  It won't suffice to prove (if Plaintiff does) that she trumped up grounds to fire him because she was tired of him.  She has to have discriminated based on race or national origin -- or retaliated against Mr. Granados for pursuing a complaint (or repeated complaints, orally) about discrimination and a hostile work environment.   Each side has made some good points on this issue.
        So I'm not predicting a winner.  Too early.

Anyway: not sure a sane person would have bothered writing this; so keep that in mind when you read it; and keep in mind that these are the spontaneous observations of one person watching the trial, which has several days to run.  Like a commentator during the first quarter of an NBA playoff game, I could look like a complete idiot when the final score goes up.
Oh, and the Judge definitely wasn't calling his bookie!  His exceptional attentiveness and his note-taking skills establish beyond peradventure that he's got his head in the game.]



Tuesday, June 25, 2013

An Interesting Trial

[First, a plea to you: if you are a juror in the trial described below, please DO NOT READ THIS.  That would contravene Judge Arrieta's instructions and could constitute juror misconduct; and one side or the other might request a mistrial based on your reading of any news coverage.  Don't do it.  If you are a friend or relative of someone on the jury, please don't even mention this post to him or her until after the trial ends!
If you are not a juror, feel free - but forgive me if it's wordy or misses a point or two.  I wrote this hastily, after a full day observing trial, and it's based on my scribbled and sometimes legible notes]

 Las Cruces (June 25) -- The Court denied a defense request for a mistrial this afternoon in Granados v. Dona Ana County.
      The case arises from allegations by former Director of Public Works Jorge Granados that his termination by the County was discriminatory and was retaliation for a series of complaints by him, many on behalf of his supervisees.  The County denies the allegations and contends he was properly dismissed based on performance, including allegations of destruction of documents, dishonesty, and insubordination.
      Granados's allegations largely concern alleged conduct by Sue Padilla, who became Deputy City Manager while he worked here.  He claims that particularly after he relayed a discrimination claim by one of the men he supervised, Ms. Padilla targeted him and his department.  He testified that she verbally abused them, calling them liars and thieves and calling him a dog.
      Evidence showed that Mr. Granados, who grew up in Brazito, graduated from NMSU then went to California to get his engineering certificate.  He worked 17 years in California, where he supervised perhaps 150 employees, but then took the job with Dona Ana County so as to return home,.  He apparently worked for the County from 2004 until 2008 without incident.  He received no formal evaluations, but testified that he succeeded in improving communications and teamwork in his department, which he said had been somewhat under fire at the time he was hired to run it.
      In 2008 there was an incident in which two workers from his department attended some training out of the county.  One had been approved to attend it at county expense.  The other had not.  According to his testimony, she asked if she could take leave and attend it at her own expense, and he agreed to that.  Statements by county sources today suggest that she eventually sought and perhaps obtained reimbursement and/or pay for her time.  (On December 3, 2008 he was formally reprimanded for "insubordination and dishonesty" in connection with this.)
      At roughly this time, he testified, Ms. Padilla called the road workers "liars and thieves" and made various allegations against his department, which allegations were never substantiated.
      At one point, he said, one of his supervisees came to him and stated that Ms. Padilla had directed that in future neither Mr. Granados nor the supervisee, Road Department supervisor Armando Cordero, could any longer be "hearing officers" with regard to disciplinary actions.  He stated that Mr. Cordero "found it offensive because no one but  Caucasian hearing officers would be hearing disciplinary actions involving Hispanics."
      He recounted a "counseling session" requested by one woman who reported directly to him.  At the session, supervisors were saying they were being harassed by Ms. Padilla and had a totally hostile work environment.  One, Armando Cordero, reportedly said he was experiencing a completely hostile work environment due to the grievance Mr. Granados had passed on for him.   Another, Misty Dawn Benavidez, reportedly said she was afraid to come to him about such allegations because of what Ms. Padilla was doing or would do to him.  He said he saw a third "tear up" while discussing the situation.
      Once during the morning's testimony, Mr. Granados broke down and cried when testifying about about road-workers under his supervision working very hard but being subjected to allegations that they were "liars and thieves."  Judge Manuel I Arrieta ordered a short recess.
      He testified that he approached Human Resources, County Counsel, and County Manager Brian Haines concerning these matters, but "was not getting anywhere."
      He testified that in 2009 internal auditor Milton Duran did an extensive audit of his department, at Ms. Padilla's request.  In the audit report, issued in 2010 Mr. Duran found no significant findings, and commended the department both for good work and for responsiveness to his suggestions.  He testified that Ms. Padilla was "very irritated that there were no negative findings."  Within a short time, he testified, Mr. Duran was fired.
      In October 2009 he discussed the situation with a temporary Human Resources Director who he says told him "to stick around and fight for your staff" when Mr. Granados said how tired he was.
      The next day, he testified, he was called and told to report to a meeting, where he received "my first and only evaluation."  The City Manager and Assistant City Manager "proceeded to just rip me apart verbally in that evaluation."   He said he felt "belittled," "humiliated," and "retaliated on."
      In June 2010 he was called and ordered to report to another meeting, where he was presented with a formal document stating the county's intent to terminate his employment.  In the meantime he was suspended, and a Deputy County Counsel watched him pack up his office then escorted him from the building.
      The notice of termination listed four basic shortcomings, including insubordination and dishonesty in connection with the training incident; destruction of documents; and mishandling of a discrimination complaint.
      The documents involved a situation in which two road department foremen had yelled at each other.  Once claimed "workplace violence."  Investigation by the Sheriff's Office showed that while other employees had heard shouting from behind closed doors, they had seen no violence.  A third foreman was exonerated, and Mr. Granados gave the other two "verbal warnings."  Under county procedures these are kept in the files of the originating department.  More serious "written reprimands" are placed in employees' personnel files.  It was these documents Mr. Granados apparently was accused of destroying.  He testified that when he received the Notice he retrieved the documents and presented them at his hearing.
      The discrimination issue apparently involved his alleged failure to file a report of a claim of discrimination.  According to his testimony, he was told that an Anglo road worker wasn't able to understand all the Spanish spoken in his work crew and felt overworked.  Mr. Granados and the Road Department supervisor agreed that the man should be transferred to a group where mostly English was spoken.  This was done.  Mr. Granados testified that he ordered the Road Department supervisor to follow up on the matter, and received a report that the Anglo worker was satisfied with the new arrangement.
      Mr. Granados testified that he requested a two-week delay in his termination hearing, because a key witness would be on vacation and unavailable.  The request was denied.  He thereafter received from that witness affidavits
      County Manager Brian Haines presided at the termination hearing.  Mr. Granados said that he was "constantly interrupted when he tried to put in evidence   He said that when he presented the fellow employee's affidavits, Mr. Haines threw them down as if he didn't care.  Two days later he was told that Mr. Haines was going to uphold the recommendation to terminate Mr. Granados.
      Late in the afternoon. Mr. Granados testified concerning financial and emotional damage he had suffered.
He went "six months and 23 days" without work, and eventually had to take work in California.  During the interim, he said, the family was "no longer turning on the air conditioning, just to make ends meet" and "rationing down to very simple meals.  If I had not received a job, we were going to lose our home.  This was weighing very heavily on me, knowing I would not even be able to provide a roof for my family."
      "It made me feel as if I had betrayed my family by standing up for others -- it actually made me feel guilty at times," he added.
       He testified that while getting a job in Fresno ended the worry about providing for the family, it was emotionally more difficult because he was separated from his wife and daughters.  In part because they'd used part of the kids' college fund to survive after his termination, his wife remained here so that his elder daughter, about to graduate from high school, could still get in-state tuition at NMSU, rather than having to pay some much higher rate elsewhere or out-of-state tuition here.
        During some of this testimony about his emotional-distress damage claim, he voice trembled again, he again sniffled, and he appeared to shed some tears.
        Just before 5 p.m., out of the jury's presence, Mr. Carrillo moved for a mistrial, citing the tears, saying "the jury is tainted" and alleging that Plaintiff was "engaging in theatrics."
    Judge Arrieta immediately denied the motion.  He stated that since the morning interruption, he'd merely seen Mr. Granados "sniffle, and his voice has broken, but he retained composure generally."  He added that as a trial lawyer he'd seen much more disruptive shows of emotions, and that what he'd seen today was "not a basis for a mistrial.  I don't think it's theatrics."
    The trial will continue tomorrow morning.
                                                                    - 30 -
      The foregoing is takes the form of a news story.  Reportage, not a column.  It may seem more favorable to Plaintiff than to Defendant; but it's Plaintiff's innings now.  Plaintiff will present a series of witnesses.  Defendant will get to cross-examine Mr. Granados tomorrow, and eventually present witnesses in defense of the County.  In short, the trial is not yet over.  The County may present strong evidence to rebut or explain some of what Mr. Granados has said.  The fat lady has definitely not sung.
      Having said that, let me add that it's sad that no other member of the public, and no representative of any news outlet (except, for awhile in the afternoon, Diana Alba Soular from the Sun-News), watched the proceedings.  (Ms. Soular did write a good article on the opening of the trial.)  Sadly, modern economizing doesn't permit (and public indifference doesn't encourage) the kind of coverage such a trial would once have warranted.   Decades ago there would have been numerous print, radio, and/or TV journalists present.  Too, members of the public might well have wandered in.  There was even a time (before Internet, before TV, maybe before radio) when trials were a major form of public entertainment, and folks regularly attended them just for the drama.  
       This one involves serious allegations against the County.  Are they true or not true?  Some of you reading this should be there figuring that out for yourself, and deciding whether or not (whatever the result of the trial itself, which could turn one way or the other on legal technicalities) the problems alleged by Mr. Granados and several other former employees are real and serious.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Notes from the desert

Several mornings this week, when I’ve gone out early to uncover the bird-feed block, I’ve scared away not only the usual rabbits and quail but a young coyote, who trots off into the desert, pausing for a reproachful glance back at me.

We cover the feed-block at night because of the deer.  The drought has emboldened them.  Over the winter and spring they ate what they could of their favorite vegetation, and even ate away what they could reach of the cypress and Afghan pines, leaving the cypress looking naked for their first six feet off the ground.  Sometimes I race out in the middle of the night shouting at them, and they bound off for a moment, but soon return.

The hummingbirds are back from their Mexican vacation, buzzing the feeders and chasing each other around.  The ocotillo bloomed a little late for their annual date with the hummers, and we’re still collecting what we can of their wispy seeds.

Yesterday one quail couple brought half a dozen hatchlings around to check out the feed-block and the shallow water dishes we keep filled for them.  Friday night when six of us sat out back of some friends’ house over in Picacho Hills, we frustrated a pair of swallows trying to get back to their nest under the roof over part of the terrace.  They kept swooping toward us, then putting on the brakes as suddenly as Wiley Coyote or the Roadrunner. Once when everyone else happened to be inside, and I sat contemplating my wine-glass, they did return; and once it got dark they settled down – she on the nest and he inches away, sitting on some convenient pipe or nail – as if darkness stripped us of all power to harm their young.

Sunday, when we shaved off all my hair for summer, I felt guilty about doing it so belatedly.  Last year we did this in very early May, and immediately saw birds snagging snatches of the hair and putting it to use in nests.

The snakes have returned: the desert patch-nose digging holes everywhere; several small western ground snakes, each sporting a bright red stripe; a handsome bull snake who eventually disappeared into a prickly pear patch; and a king snake curled among the columbine in the little garden around our front door, enjoying the moist coolness there and supposing himself well-hidden because we couldn’t see his face.  (Many of these Dael reports to me, as she wanders around doing useful work and I waste time indoors on columns and such.)  I’ve watched patch-noses dig holes, using their necks like shovels, and even videotaped one bursting back up from the ground with a lizard in his mouth. The bull snake looks somewhat like a diamond-back rattler, as if he’d evolved that resemblance to intimidate.  He actually eats rattlers on occasion.  The king snake was an exotic-looking black fellow with a yellow pattern.

We also share the property with a rattlesnake who moved in around June 1st.  So far he has proved so lazy and almost amiable that instead of moving him a couple of miles away, we’ve left him undisturbed.  Sometimes we don’t see him for days.

We moved several rattlers last year after a neighbor fashioned a snake-noose for us.  I’d get the thing
around the snake, near his head, tighten it just enough to pick him up, drop him into a plastic garbage can, cover it, and drive him to a spot miles from human habitation.  In the process I noticed that rattlers seem to differ in their relative aggressiveness.  Some ignore a footstep dangerously close to them, others are coiled and rattling when you’re twenty feet away.

So we’ve taken a chance on this one, though we’ll look into whether the venom antidote the vets sell for dogs will work for cats – and we’ll walk even more carefully.  Sunday he spent most of the day napping under a Texas sage just outside our living room window, occasionally moving a few feet to enhance his protection from the sun.  So far he has ignored our photographic intrusions, but he did get a bit worked up when the cat sat intruded on his solitude with characteristic feline curiosity.  Will we regret our tolerance?  Stay tuned.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the roadrunner was around yesterday, sitting on the shed roof.  (Nearby a cactus wren complained loudly, either because the roadrunner had just eaten part of the wren’s family or because it seemed likely he’d soon try.)  Roadrunners too have a taste for rattlesnake.

I went out back to photograph the roadrunner; and after awhile when he stepped toward the front of the shed, I went through the house and out the front door to continue.

Then I got distracted.  Our garden includes not only cactus and ocotillo and yucca, but also a gargoyle, random pottery from friends and various found objects such as the toy figures left by the children who lived here before us – and a Saki bottle, shaped like a Japanese bullet-train, that someone gave us when we were in Osaka last year.   After the roadrunner got bored with posing and wandered off, I photographed a tiger whip-tail lizard as she climbed onto the train, looking very much like the destructive star of some 1950's Japanese monster movie.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 23 June.]

Monday, June 10, 2013

Images from a Rodeo

   There's been a lot going on, so this post is a good deal later than it might have been.  [Note: one thing going on was show opening at Branigan Cultural Center this past Friday evening.  If you are looking for links to the site containing text and more photos from the journey around Perú, jump down to Peruvian Journey .]

   The NMSU Rodeo was Friday through Sunday, April 26-28, and I was wandering around with my camera whenever they were doing what they were doing.

   Photographically, I like what I got at the rodeo less than what I'd shot at practices all spring.  There's a crowd at the rodeo, but at the practice arena just the team, an occasional friend, and a couple of guys from the northern end of the state who were marooned down here installing some kind of cooler system, and often wandered out after work to watch.  (Unlike me, they actually knew a lot about the subject.)

   Crowds not only interfere with your freedom of motion, but they -- and a bunch of advertising banners and a football stadium -- can muck up the background.  The practice arena was smaller.  I could shoot from anywhere and be closer to the action.  Yeah, there were telephone poles and wires to excise from some of the images, but not ads for restaurants and automobile parts.

    Still, I went all three days, shot constantly, and stayed till the light gave out, and it was both fun and interesting.

The crowd added to the fun.  The rodeo clown, Justin Rumford, who'd recently won the award as the top PRCA rodeo clown in 2012, added to the fun.  In one of his routines, borrowing a cell-phone from someone in the crowd, then pretending to throw it away, he borrowed the phone from someone we knew; and another routine involved an NMSU rodeo cowboy I'd talked with at practices, in which they both stripped down to their shorts and compared physiques and dance moves.  The cowboy (named Paeden Underwood, I think) won the audience's vote, but Justin, though overweight, was clearly a very athletic gent.

    Anyway, we had fun.  It was probably the first rodeo I'd attended since I was an undergraduate here, but it won't be the last.  I'd recommend it to other folks around here who aren't necessarily conversant with all the rules.  Unlike most sports in this country, it developed, of course, from real work required of the vaqueros here in earlier centuries -- and still required of some young folks in New Mexico, though fewer than formerly.  It's both full of action and a bit of history.

    The event at NMSU was named the "Best Rodeo of the Year" on the circuit, for the ninth time in a row, and the men's team held on to the top spot in the region, while the women placed fourth.  I think the men's team may be in the top three nationally.

    The images below are from 26 April.  I'll add images from the second and third days later this week.  And images from practices are viewable at Riding and Roping, and Riding and Roping II, as well as Spring, a newspaper column.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Will the Field of Dreams Become a Field of Nightmares?

NMSU and the Las Cruces School Board are each considering making the same costly mistake: replacing grass with artificial turf in the Chihuahuan Desert.

One expert termed NMSU’s plan “absolutely ridiculous.”  The likely rationalization is that the Sunbelt Conference requires it.

The School Board was to meet Friday to discuss the same idea.

Although debates continue over safety, third-generation artificial turf solves some of the problems posed by the earlier versions; and proponents claim the artificial turf would save water.

But the overwhelming weight of evidence says artificial turf on the Field of Dreams would be very expensive, pose serious health and injury risks, and might not even save water.  Any water savings would be offset by environmental problems.

It would cost around $1 million to install artificial turf, which would have a ten-year life-expectancy.  Some money would come from the state; and proponents say the school district could make up the difference with rental fees.  I have my doubts that in a community this size rental fees would suffice.   Further, after ten years the school would need to put in new artificial turf.  Once a community replaces grass with plastic (killing living organisms in the subsoil), a natural field can’t be grown on the site without years of soil remediation or complete subsoil replacement.

Proponents may not realize the maintenance costs.  Despite the marketing ploys of artificial turf manufacturers, synthetic fields require additional infill, chemical disinfectants, and drainage repair and maintenance.  A recent Michigan State University study put typical annual maintenance costs for artificial turf fields from $13,720 to $39,220, with costs for natural fields ranging from $8,133 to $48,960.  A University of Missouri turf specialist concluded that over 16 years it would cost $33,522 to maintain a natural soil-based field, $49,318 for a sand-cap grass field, $65,846 for a basic synthetic field, and $109,013 for a premium synthetic field.

Even the purported water savings could be illusory, particularly in our climate.  Surface temperatures of artificial turf go way up on hot days – as high as 200 degrees Fahrenheit on one 98 degree day.  A study at Brigham Young found the temperature of its synthetic turf practice field 37 degrees higher than air temperature.  Proponents argue that games can be played at cooler times – but in early autumn in Las Cruces, that’s tough.  Cooling off the field takes a significant amount of water.

Even more serious are health and injury risks.  “Turf toe” and “turf burns are familiar terms to professional football fans.

Studies, including the NFL’s, show that while the numbers of injuries are similar with both surfaces, artificial turf leads to more serious injuries and longer recovery periods.  The NFL’s Injury and Safety Panel concluded that certain serious knee and ankle injuries occur significantly more often in games played on artificial turf.

Too, at least one study showed that artificial turf increased MRSA risk.  Turf burns often lead to antibiotic-resistant skin infections.  (MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus areus.) A study of the St. Louis Rams found eight players with MRSA, all resulting from turf burn.   Three studies among Texas high school football players, conducted by the Texas Department of Health Services, also found a conneciton between artificial turf and these infections, although the studies were too small to establish a statistical link.  NFL medical liaison Elliot Pellman said, “The turf burns themselves are just the kind of minor skin injury that MRSA can exploit.”

Bernd Leinauer, a turf expert at NMSU, pointed out that artificial turf retains bodily fluids because there are no microbial communities to take care of viruses, and fields must be sanitized frequently for health reasons.  In addition, black carbon nano particles can occur in crumb rubber infill material – and some cancer experts consider these particles as dangerous as asbestos.  Tires contain benzene, formaldehyde, and other harmful substances.  Heat and use break them down into a fine dust players inhale. Each field contains tens of thousands of ground-up tires.

Leinauer also said that where water use, maintenance, and cost were key issues, natural turf should be used – in our locale, Bermudagrass.

There are reasons professional leagues have moved away from artificial turf.

In major league baseball, nearly 40% of teams once had artificial turf.  It started in 1966 with Houston’s Astrodome.  By 1970, six of 24 stadiums, including San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, had the stuff.  During the 1970's teams were ripping out natural grass to install artificial turf.   In 1982, with the installation of artificial turf in Minnesota’s new Metrodome, 10 of the 26 teams had the stuff.  Then teams started removing it.  Only Toronto and Tampa Bay still play on artificial turf.

In U.S. professional football, artificial turf remains more common, despite players’ complaints, but in the football we call soccer, artificial turf was outlawed, although there’s some talk of looking into the latest artificial-turf developments.

I hope that before this column appears the School Board will have voted down artificial turf or tabled it for careful study.

These are KIDS we’re talking about.  They have decades of life ahead of them.  Injuries are part of sports; but why increase the likelihood kids will suffer serious injury playing high school football?  Why expose them to unnecessary health risks, just because artificial turf looks neat and pretty?

[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 9 June, 2013.  It was written before the school board met Friday morning, but appeared after that meeting.]

        The school board meeting Friday morning was kind of pathetic.

        Few people even seemed to know the issue was under consideration.  Only two spoke: the expert quoted in the column, Bernd Lanauer, and myself.  I had earlier sent the board-members a copy of this column, along with a link to a nine-minute video anyone interested in the subject should watch.

        The board showed no interest in what Mr. Lanauer had to say.  When school officials parroted industry marketing materials, and Mr. Lanauer offered to rebut some of the inaccuracies, the board was not interested.  

        As far as I can tell, the administration never had consulted the university, even though there were some world-class experts available there.  If I understood correctly, experts here were responsible for the natural turf on which two Super Bowls were played.  Certainly an unbiased fact-finder, trying to ascertain what might work for the Las Cruces Schools, would have located the nearby university and inquired.  

        But boosters and school officials wanted artificial turf.   As one of the officials pointed out, only two districts played on natural turf last year.   Board member Maria Flores immediately noted, "But our players are winning anyway!"  I thought of parents with kids who want to drink booze or smoke or get high or get tattoos or whatever because the other kids do.  "Because the others do it" isn't necessarily a great reason.  Now the kids have the Board of Education to cite on their side.  Sometimes you have to do dumb things to save face with the majority, I guess.
        One board-member made an impassioned plea to consider the kids who'd be playing on the stuff.  Another cited both the health/injury concerns and the inordinate cost to a school system already having troubles meeting its obligations.  Both dissented during the vote.

        Of the others, two seemed uncomfortable doing what they were doing, voting for the artificial turf.  One said that while the health concerns were "not non-existent," it seemed that "being pragmatic" required the board to approve the huge expense.
        Of course, it seemed pragmatic because the school officials briefing the board had decided what they wanted to do, and didn't really investigate facts and expert opinions that didn't fit their plan.