Sunday, December 29, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

You surely have many specific gifts to contemplate.

Some of mine these days:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you!

And Happy Christmas.

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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mancheca was reportedly permitted to roam among medium security prisoners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We deserve to know the truth.

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

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

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

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Facts on the Filibuster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Democrats seem to have kept that agreement.

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

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

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

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