Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vote "No" on April 8

Mark April 8th on your calendar.

That day you can vote on whether you want to pay $10 or $20 extra in taxes to provide $350,000 annually to fund a group of extremists who write useless letters and resolutions.

Dona Ana Soil and Water Conservation District (“S&W”), has set a special election on a proposal that S&W receive about $9.2 cents per thousand dollars net assessed value on each home. If your house's assessed value is $150,000, you'd pay $13.84.

You probably have no idea what S&W does.

Despite its name S&W opposes most every conservation proposal they hear about, including the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument proposal.

Remember the crazy idea to create a pipeline to divert water from the Gila River to Deming? Even the legislator who suggested this admitted that he just wanted to scare people into thinking seriously about water. No one intended to build the pipeline; but S&W voted unanimously to support it – although it would cost a boatload of money, destroy the Gila River, and accomplish very little.
S&W even passed a resolution opposing U.N. Agenda 21.

I first heard of Agenda 21 when someone wrote asking how soon the City would herd people into high-rise residences and confiscate their four-wheel-drive vehicles because of Agenda 21. Wondering what the fuss was about, I read Agenda 21. It's a well-intentioned paper favoring a healthier world and less poverty. Nothing it recommends is mandatory, but some folks fear that local governments are cutting secret deals with the U.N. to steal our freedoms.

Tuesday evening fewer than 25 citizens attended S&W's “open house.” Attendees asked for a budget or coherent plan for how the money would be used. S&W had neither.

Citizens also questioned the group's extremist politics. S&W Chairman Joe Delk was repeatedly asked to explain some of his positions, or at least assure the audience that S&W would concentrate on productive work, not spend public money on political posturing. He gave no such assurance.

Boardmember Jennifer Shoup, said Agenda 21 was being “imposed on us.” Reminded that Agenda 21 is voluntary, she replied that local groups were adopting some of its goals, such as “smart growth and sustainability.”

Delk spoke vaguely about what S&W would do with the money. He's written far more eloquently about how conservation districts can be a vital force in the battle between solid Christians and the “environmental cartels.”

Delk writes he is “a child of a living and all-powerful and graceful God,” while “environmental cartels” seek “to elevate a secular spiritualism while suppressing and diminishing the presence and importance of Christian men and women,” and conservation districts “are a bastion of conservative leaders . . . and may also be the key to our future.”

Tuesday evening's presentation featured a representative of the Upper Hondo Conservation District. Her knowledge and professionalism highlighted the failings of the local group. She discussed cooperating with other agencies on real projects. Mr. Delk seems more interested in an epic battle between his version of Christianity and our secular society.

One example: in his haste to oppose the BLM last year, Delk may have broken New Mexico's open-meetings law. BLM was considering a Tri-County Plan. Public comment period was to end September 16. On July 13, over one objection, Delk declared “an emergency” to hold a meeting on shortened notice to approve contributing $2,000 for an expert to determine how to attack the Plan. The “emergency” allowed him to escape certain requirements of the law. 
Delk did this not because of any specific objection, but because “there's no telling what's hidden in the nooks and crannies of the words therein.” Was this legally an emergency? Subsection F of the Open Meetings Law states “an 'emergency' refers to unforeseen circumstances that, if not addressed immediately by the public body, will likely result in injury or damage to persons or property or substantial financial loss to the public body.
[NOTE: after deadline for this column, I believe this matter was reported to the Third Judicial District Attoney.]

The City and County already have mil levies for flood control. A local leader said later that since S&W apparently has the right to work on private property, which the City and County can't, “They don't need a bunch of money. All they have to do is stop their political ranting and be cooperative with entities that already exist. It's a shame they isolate themselves that way.”

I was heartened to hear Delk mention “rainwater harvesting.” 

But I don't want to be taxed an extra $15 next year to fund this group, unless and until they show more true interest in conservation and less of an obsession with ideology. 

S&W's charge is to help us better manage our natural resources. 

Speaking of practical ways to do that, a leading expert on rainwater harvesting, Brad Lancaster, will speak Thursday, April 10, at 7 pm. at the Rio Grande Theater. Admission is free. We hope anyone within driving distance attends, including Delk and his fellow board-members. Politics aside, we all need practical information on preserving our most precious resource.

[The column above appeared in this morning's Las Cruces Sun-News.  There's lot's more to say on this matter -- including why writing this column saddened me.
A part of the real story is the fact that our modern society threatens to marginalize and eventually destroy ranching.   No one feels that more than the ranchers.   It also matters to me.   Part of the conflict between environmentalists and ranchers is probably inevitable; but part of it isn't, and I think that to some degree ranchers who reflexively resist conservation and preservation measures are focusing on the wrong enemy.   I also feel troubled when environmentalists fail to give fair weight to the human and societal values of ranching.  I'd rather see these groups communicate better, compromise, and even work together on possible common concerns.

Having said that, I want to add additional material here, partly because the April 8th vote is imminent and partly to offer readers of the column access to some of the basic documents and materials I reviewed in writing it.
Thus I want to add not only URL's but a further analysis of the open-meetings -- and procurement law -- concerns raised by Mr. Delk's conduct of a meeting last July.  

Some URL's

Here is the actual link to the 7/31/13 Minutes in which Mr. Delk concedes that the only way to hold the meeting on such short notice is to call it an “emergency:”

Here's the link to Mr. Delk's extended comment on “environmental cartels” from which we quote in the column: 

Here's Dona Ana Soil & Water District's website, for it's point of view on these matters.

The July 13, 2013 Meeting

This affair warrants a more formal investigation than mine for two reasons: (a) Mr. Delk appears to have willfully misused  the "emergency" exception to evade clear Open Meetings Act requirements; and (b) since the meeting resulted in a decision to spend $2,000 of public funds, query whether proper procurement procedures were followed.

First of all, was the whole thing completely unnecessary?   BLM was involved in a complex process of creating, taking public comment on, and reworking a Tri-County Plan.   The S&W board-members had the opportunity to review it and comment, as did we all.  They apparently had no specific faults to find with it, but suspected that if they looked deeper they might find some. 
Public comment was to end in mid-September.  Two months in advance, Mr. Delk (and, apparently, some other organizations, reportedly including EBID) wanted to fund an expert to review the plan and draft comments for S&C and the others to voice.)
Mr. Delk called an Emergency Meeting to approve contributing $2,000 to paying the expert.  The minutes to this meeting leave no doubt that he knew his action was legally questionable:
1. Another person present stated her disagreement with him that this was an "emergency" under applicable law, and Mr. Delk responded that he would take the hit for it if anyone asked;
2. Mr. Delk stated that "Time was of the essence in this matter, so the only way to call a meeting on this short of notice was to make it an emergency meeting," according to the minutes, which continue, "NMDA SWCD Specialist Tiffany Rivera did not agree, but Joe said he was willing to take the hits should this be questioned."
3. The "emergency" nature of the meeting meant that only a few board-members were present.  Several, such as Steve Wilmeth, were absent, and thus not involved in the possible violation.
4. As noted in the column, the law defines "emergency" quite clearly as: "unforeseen circumstances that, if not addressed immediately by the public body, will likely result in injury or damage to persons or property or substantial financial loss to the public body.
   * Since the BLM procedures were well-publicized, one wonders what the "unforeseen circumstances" could have been;
   * What was the "likely  injury or damage" that would have resulted from the slight delay needed to comply with law?  
   * Why did Mr. Delk not articulate the "likely injury or damage" and why those would occur if this problem were "not addressed immediately" by S&W?
I'm not a prosecutor.  I do think an appropriate authority should ask Mr. Delk those questions, because if he hasn't got satisfactory answers, he may well be guilty of a crime.  I hope District Attorney Mark D'Antonio will pursue this.  

Whether or not the foregoing establishes a violation of law, it show pretty clearly Mr. Delk's priorities and his lack of regard for the law.  He wanted $2,000 in public funds to go to creating some opposing comments to the BLM, and they $2,000 went to that purpose.

The Bottom Line
Soil and Water Conservation Districts in other states, and even elsewhere in New Mexico, can be functioning entities that actually help conserve water and soil.   The representative of Upper Hondo's SWCD at Tuesday's meeting was not only knowledgeable and eloquent, she was clearly a deep believer in the mission of SWCD's.
Ranchers definitely should be a significant voice on an SWCD, though not the only one.
So why wouldn't we vote for this mil levy and hope that the Dona Ana SWCD would turn to its actual mission and perform that mission appropriately?
City residents likely wouldn't do so, because they already pay for flood control and the SWCD's work would be wholly or mostly outside Las Cruces.   The Dona Ana folks presumably could have exempted the city from the levy, as Upper Hondo's SWCD did with municipalities there.  City residents may not wish to be double-taxed.
County residents also pay something for flood control.  They may wonder why our SWCD can't just work with the county.
Above all, though, the evidence just seems to point against optimism regarding the SWCD.   What do their meeting minutes and resolutions show about their priorities?  So far, that they are preoccupied with extremist, anti-governmental politics and have had little to say on immediate issues.  (Spending a significant part of their small budget on creating some opposition to the BLM Plan might have been indicative.)  They're up in arms about Agenda 21 and grey wolves; they show more interest in attacking other governmental groups than in finding ways to cooperate to conserve; and while they have plenty of resolutions regarding their political views, we see few resolutions encouraging rain harvesting, keeping the soil clean from contaminants, or other conservation measures.

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