Sunday, April 20, 2014

What Did Last Week's Election Teach Us?

What did we learn from the thunderous rejection of Doña Ana Soil & Water Conservation District's (“S&W's”) try for a tax hike and $350,000 a year?

S&W, a sort of state agency, set a special election for April 8, anticipating maybe 400-500 voters. (Not S&W's fault that this was a special election, there's a state statute we should amend) Many questioned whether the group, which spends most of its time passing fatuous resolutions concerning things irrelevant to its mission (such as immigration and U.N. Agenda 21), would actually use the money properly; and we wondered how a group so insistent on antagonizing other government agencies would manage the necessary cooperation with those agencies to get anything done.

To some extent, the vote became a mini-referendum on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument proposal, which S&W vigorously opposes. The 85% vote confirmed again that the Monument proposal is extremely popular. People cared enough to turn out for a one-question vote. Some, including my wife and me, waited an hour and a half to vote. One friend suggested I write a column about “white voters getting to experience what black voters do in elections, humongous lines at polling places.”

The wait wasn't as bad as it might have been. People maintained a sense of humor and made new friends. (We waited with Susan Reidel, Republican candidate for A.G., and her son, a DASO Deputy, and had a pleasant chat, mostly staying off politics.) But the wait was long. We saw several people approach Good Sam's, notice the long line, and beat a hasty retreat. (Kudos to Deputy County Clerk Mario Jimenez for sending some folks with water bottles to keep us alive to vote.)

The entire controversy left me with a bunch of questions and ideas. One question was who paid the tab for the cost of a special election. (S&W) Also, S&W's penny-pinching gave us just five polling places, and resulting long lines.

A weightier question concerns the S&W argument that the enhanced budget was necessary to deal with the urgent problem of outmoded dams, some built decades ago to protect farmland and now standing above communities.

The question is simple: everyone's politics aside, how much truth was there in that argument? Which dams most urgently need fixing or replacing? In some cases, is there a more ecologically-friendly alternative that would be as effective as (or more so than) rebuilt dams? Are there practical, lower-cost solutions to some of these problems? And where there's a real need for a new dam, where do we get the funds?

I'd like to learn the answers to some of these questions, since I regularly comment on the local scene. I'm not having second thoughts about advocating a “No” vote April 8; but I do feel as if folks of good will ought to communicate clearly concerning the situation and try to find common ground.

One thing some of us learned, and others already knew from their experience elsewhere in New Mexico or other states, is that there many S&W's make real and beneficial contributions to their communities.

Could a recharged S&W, with some new blood and representing more points of view, be useful here? I'd like to look into that. Water is the key issue for folks like us who live in a desert. The present drought will only make it more so.

I'd like to spend some time with the S&W and EBID folks. Sure, I think they sometimes talk a lot of rot, as they undoubtedly think I do; but some, at least at EBID, have some real knowledge, and some of the S&W people represent ranchers. Ranching is important not only to our economy (though less so than some ranchers claim), but also to our culture, history, and identity. I've met many ranchers who are good stewards of the land. In an increasingly plastic world, folks who do what they do are a precious and endangered resource. I know ranching practices and environmental concerns sometimes get in each other's way; but I suspect that a significant amount of the animus between ranchers and environmentalists could and should be avoided. (That's one reason Joe Delk's raging at “the environmental cartels” he sees as trying to push his “powerful and graceful God” out of our culture is so unhelpful.)

It'd be sweet if everyone's ideologies and prejudices took a back seat to a community effort to get some things right.

Maybe we could have a functional S&W. Even without much money, it could do some good, if it brought people together and solved problems creatively. (Brad Lancaster's talk on water harvesting, two nights after the vote, was like a punctuation mark emphasizing “by the way, there might be some solutions here we've overlooked.”)

Such a group might someday ask for more funding, but only after showing it deserved that funding and would make good use of the public's money – and trust.
[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, April 20th.  Coincidentally, Opinion Page Editor Walt Rubel had decided to write his own Sunday column the same subject.   Some will recall that the Sun-News editorialized in favor of the ballot measure, and I strongly opposed itYet another column in this morning's paper is County Clerk Lynn Ellins's guest column on the election from the point of view of the folks who had to help run it with the financial and other constraints the Soil & Water Conservation District had.  County Clerk's office deserves a lot of credit for making the best of a bad situation -- not the opprobrium heaped on it by frustrated voters who didn't understand the relative roles of the S&W folks and the Clerk. ]
["What's Walt thinking?" a friend emailed me this morning.  I think Walt and I agree more than we disagree, in the sense that we each think decision-makers should understand the situation, identify any urgent flood-protection needs, and try desperately to deal with those -- although we're also each aware that it's a common view among local officials that it could take $500 million to fix all the problems, and no one has any idea where to procure anything close to that amount.
Where we differ is that in Walt's desperate concern to avoid flooding, he imagines that Mr. Delk, who misspent the District's time and small budget on fatuous resolutions, sharing in on a study to find some ground to criticize the BLM, and whatever else, would suddenly make wiser and more effective use of $350,000.  Why would we assume that?  I'd like to share your faith, Walt; but the evidence suggests otherwise. 
I also have concerns that the folks who'd be advising Mr. Delk and his Board might be too committed to their own strategy and constituency, at the expense of better solutions.  I hope to learn that's not true.  But it's a reasonable concern.
Finally, as the column suggests, I want to make it a priority to learn more about this subject.  I want to take a fair and objective look at it -- and (if I learn anything useful) voice further views to readers and local officials.] 


  1. Very disappointed in Walt Rubel's take on the election, where he asks just what do those of us who voted "no" suggest we do to protect the city from flooding? The answer is spelled out in your thoughtful essay -- at least a way to get there. If the S&W district wants our tax based in their district, they need to show us some respect in organizing elections and in working with our existing governing institutions in a coordinated solution. Thanks, Peter!

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