Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dispatch from the Desert

Recent rains remind me to catch up on giving a little ink to the various creatures who surround us.

We've a healthy population of vinegaroons. (I know folks who grew up here and have never seen one.) They're ugly, but mean no harm to us. Conveniently, they eat scorpions.

We hadn't seen a baby vinegaroon until one showed up the other night with his parents, then alone two days later. He showed no fear, striding around as if he were master of his world. Even strolled into the house for a look.

We've seen a fair number of scorpions this season. We place an upside-down glass on top of 'em and slide a postcard underneath, carry them out to the front gate, and toss 'em over. Sometimes they immediately raise their tails in anger. Others, like the fellow last night, remain relaxed and just enjoy the ride.

A few weeks ago we had a first: a banded desert centipede in the living room. He seemed as big and fast as an NFL running back. I killed him. No time to trap him – and really didn't want to see him again. Their bites ain't fatal; but they ain't fun, and there's something discomfiting about a centipede lurking under the couch.

It's been a quiet year for rattlesnakes.
We used to treat 'em like the scorpions. A neighbor made a tool out of flexible wire and a hollow tube, and I'd catch the rattlers in the noose, drop 'em into a garbage can, and drive them somewhere.

Then we tried just letting them be; but when you're outdoors a lot, day and night, it gets a little old, nearly stepping on a rattler or wondering if the cat has sense enough to stare from a safe distance.

I killed the final one we saw last fall. It was dusk, so I hacked straight through to make sure he was dead. As they will, the severed parts writhed for a while.

An hour later the two severed ends of the snake had reattached themselves – so closely that in a photo it's hard to see where the snake was severed. In the morning, when my wife carried the snake down to the arroyo, the two ends stuck together as if they'd never been separated.

Nature not only provides us with rattlers and scorpions, but with faux rattlers and scorpions who aren't dangerous to us but perhaps gain some security from looking like their more famous cousins. Kind of like a western gunman or 1930's gangster talking the talk and sporting a gat, but secretly hoping you won't test him.

The bullsnake resembles the rattler, but doesn't harm humans. Some even become pets. They eat rattlers. Perhaps they evolved to match the rattler's appearance as a defense mechanism; but maybe they started as poisonous as rattlers and then got religion.

The solpugid looks startlingly like a scorpion, but with two oversized arms that look as though they were in casts. He rarely harms humans. He has no poison, but may bite if handled. Again, you wonder: it's clever of him to look like a scorpion to scare us; but mightn't it get him killed?

We also notice how often the same plants and animals do the same things around the same date each year.

Right now the bees are all over the purple blossoms of the Texas Sage, though in smaller numbers than in recent years. The rain has the vinegaroons out and about. The barrel cactus is blooming. The rufous hummingbird showed up recently – same time as usual.

All's right with the world – out here, anyway.

[The column above appears in today's Las Cruces Sun-News -- Sunday, 27 July 2014.]
[I'd intended to add a couple of pictures of the snake that reattached itself.  I'd been meaning to put that wonder up on the blog since last fall.  But last night when I looked, I got to the closer picture of the dead snake and had a very strong feeling that it would somehow offend the dead snake's spirit, and that I'd best omit that.  Sorry!]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

City Employee Wins Judgment against City

A year after a jury awarded former Doña Ana County Public Works Director Jorge Granados $250,000 in damages, another jury has awarded Las Cruces City employee Sandra Hunter $ 50,000. 
On July 3, 2013, a jury determined Granados had been retaliated against and subjected to a hostile work environment. I talked to jurors afterward. They were in Howard Beale mode: damned mad and not going to take it anymore. 
On July 11, 2014, a jury held the City liable for a hostile work environment suffered by Hunter. (She did not succeed on other claims.)

(Lawyers Daniela Labinoti and Brett Duke, who represented both Granados and Hunter, also recently filed a lawsuit against the D.A's Office.) 
Ms. Hunter began working for the City in 2004. She complained of discrimination, and in 2006 she pointed out that employees were getting paid for unworked time through falsified time records.  

The City allegedly responded by punishing her. She filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although filing such charges is legally protected, the City punished her further. Allegedly, Hunter kept doing her job well but the City repeatedly transferred her, placed her on administrative leave, put her through a forced psychiatric evaluation, and unfairly disciplined her for matters that other employees weren't disciplined for. 
For example, Hunter alleged that one day she called to tell her supervisor she would be fifteen minutes late.  Her supervisor being unavailable, Hunter left a message with the supervisor's assistant.  The City investigated this incident at length, conducting multiple interviews and drafting numerous memoranda, and eventually suspended Hunter without pay for one day. Hunter says other employees were frequently late and went unreprimanded. 

Hunter will receive some compensation for her emotional distress.

We get no reimbursement for any tax dollars spent harassing this woman. Or for the $50,000 plus very substantial attorney fees we'll pay. 
I sat through the week-long Granados trial. (The jurors' disgust with then-County-Manager Sue Padilla and other officials was readily understandable to me.) I also knew the case could have and should have been settled before trial, saving the County a million dollars or so.

I didn't hear a word of testimony in Hunter, so I won't assess the verdict. (I've spoken a bit to lawyers on both sides, but don't feel comfortable getting into detail about testimony I wasn't present for. The City disagrees with the verdict but hasn't decided whether or not to appeal.)

But I did immediately wonder how this happened. 
One key witness was EEO Specialist Mary Pierce. Ironically, Pierce, then employed by the County, was a major player in the Sally Ramirez discrimination case – which, as I discussed in a column last year, ended with Doña Ana County subjected to U.S. Department of Justice monitoring and required to retrain County employees.

Did the City factor in Ramirez when hiring Pierce? Will the City require some retraining of her after Hunter? Or is Pierce blameless?

Don't know. City officials can't discuss personnel matters.

Meanwhile the recent effort by Sheriff Garrisonberger to fire Undersheriff Eddie Lerma was a ready-made lawsuit. Todd Garrison's the third Sheriff to have Lerma serve as Undersheriff. Lerma served under Garrison for nearly four years – then had the sense to doubt whether Rick Seeberger's tight control of Garrison's operation was good for the County. A firing offense. I doubt Seeberger cared about fairness or whether the County paid Lerma damages some day. 
Granados was one among many recent cases by former employees against the County. I hope Hunter is anomalous, and doesn't mean the City is getting equally careless in its treatment of employees.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 20 July 2014.]

[With regard to the last paragraph: I can't overstate the difference in context.  I was hearing incredible numbers of complaints -- and incredibly passionate complaints -- about the county manager and her pals from county employees, former county employees, and others doing business (or charity) with the county.  Most of the places I saw or smelled smoke, further investigation turned up a lot of fire.  In addition, there were a host of lawsuits by employees and former employees.  Too, I have the impression from a variety of sources that the Granados case could have been settled for a small fraction of what the County ultimately spent on it.  (I know a lot less about Hunter, but the verdict was a lot smaller than the Granados verdict.) 
I spent a week in court observing the Granados trial because it seemed symptomatic of a serious problem; and when I wrote about it on the blog, hundreds of people, including many county employees and officials, read the posts and many individuals contacted me, some of them anonymously, concerning problems with county administration.  Hunter -- the facts of which started nearly a decade ago, even before the tenure of current City Manager Bob Garza -- seems a more isolated case (and a closer one, if I read the jury's verdict right).    
Having said that, though, let me make clear that I'm open to hearing about problems with any government entity. ]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Invitation to Las Danzas

We are all invited to a celebration of a hundred years of life and dancing in a nearby village.

In 1914 a group of Indigenes from Mexico settled in the village of Tortugas. (This column concerns the group that arrived in 1914, but acknowledges with great respect that the Tigua, Piro, and Manso had been living and dancing in the village since well before 1914.)

We would know nothing of this group from Mexico if they had not been led by a remarkable man, Juan Pacheco, and later by a second remarkable man, Juan's son, Leo Pacheco.

Both men were remarkable – first, for their deep desire to keep their culture alive and, second, because they had sufficient strength of character to fulfill that desire despite poverty, society's indifference, and the way generations drift away from what they have been taught, usually in favor of whatever is new and glittery.

Central to this were las danzas. Their culture was a particular blend of Christianity and Aztec tales. When Leo told me the meanings of some of the dances, his explanation was an almost seamless web with elements from each.

If you have not seen las danzas, you should. They are very colorful. The simple music (originally drums and a violin, but now just drums) creates a compelling beat. Like the stories behind the dances, the costumes mix Christian and Aztec images. A dancer might wear a Native American headdress and bright red clothing with a scarf on the back with a picture of the Virgin. Drums beat as the dancers transport a Christian altar down the street.

To keep this tradition alive was not easy, in a village far from its origins. For example, originally only adult men danced, except for a few malinches – little girls involved in certain dances. When I met Leo in 1969 he was having to compromise. There were not enough men available. (Those present were proud to be there. One was a Los Angeles police officer who'd grown up here and still came back each year to dance.) Thus boys would be allowed to dance. (I don't recall whether women danced too that year.)

Leo loved his children, and the other children; but the compromise pained him. It was necessary, though. He would not let the tradition die out.

Leo and his wife, Estella, had twelve daughters. Their only son, Leo Martine Pacheco, died young. They were a strong – and strongly Catholic – family. The annual danzas were a central feature of family life. It was a lot of work – and the history represented was “who we are,” as one daughter recently said. When I mentioned how different Christianity and the Aztec culture seem from each other, she added, “A lot of people see us as uncivilized, just sacrificing without remorse; but when we converted to Christianity, something drew us to it.”

Eventually Leo became too ill to keep the danzas going himself.

His daughters (including Yolanda Jaramillo, the eldest) determined to continue the traditional danzas Leo had worked to keep alive. This was not a culture or a subject in which it was expected or easy for women to take the lead. Undoubtedly some men resisted their efforts at first.

But Leo and Estella raised strong women. One of his daughters told me earlier this year that whenever someone dropped off some material for use in improving their home, the daughters were expected to help out, learning building skills not generally learned by women in those days.

Leo's daughters persevered. When I watched the dances last December, there were several dozen dancers – and a lively, warm spirit. About 200 will dance to celebrate a hundred years of Danzas Aztecas here. (But please don't applaud. They are not performers!)

Sunday, July 27th there will be a mass at 10:30 a.m. at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tortugas. (The Shrine, which Juan helped to build, will also celebrate its centennial this year.) Then there will be a circle of dancing in front of the church, at 11:30 or so, followed by dancing toward the Pacheco home, where there will be a reception. The public is invited to attend the mass, watch the dancing, and enjoy the reception.

These are friends I respect. I feel honored to have been invited to share this celebration with them. I think not only of the mathematical fact of a century but of the thousand moments of difficulties, changes, and petty jealousies that added to the difficulty of loyally maintaining one's heritage and beliefs for approximately thirty-six thousand, five-hundred and twenty-five days. I will go to honor that achievement – and because this joyous event should be a lot of fun. See you there!
 [The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 13 June.  I also wrote about this group on 23 December 2012]

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Businessman to Listen To

Edward Filene must be turning over in his grave at the attitudes of both the National Chamber of Commerce and the local version.

A famous and successful store in Boston, Filene's was founded in 1881 by William Filene, German-Jewish immigrant from Prussia. Sons Edward and Lincoln took over in 1891. Inheriting the store in 1901, they became two of the nation's best-known businessmen in the early 20th Century.

Edward quickly earned Filene's a reputation as a customer-oriented store, but he was also a pioneer in employee relations. He instituted a minimum wage for women, profit-sharing, the 40-hour work week, health clinics, and paid vacations. He encouraged formation of the Filene Cooperative Association, maybe the earliest American company union. Most businessmen objected violently to engaging in collective bargaining or arbitration with their workers, and sometimes the violence was real and bloody. Filene, earlier than most, recognized that the workers were not his. He also helped pass the country's first Workmen's Compensation Law in 1911.

He was a founder of the Boston, U.S., and international chambers of commerce.

Of course, he was unusual. According to a friend, “He had a great distaste for material things, lived very modestly, never owned an automobile, and was scrupulously careful about small expenditures, all because he felt that he was a trustee for the money that he had earned and that the trustee-ship involved turning his accumulations into the greatest possible disinterested public service.”

In the 1930's, he cooperated with FDR, unlike most wealthy men. He believed that mass production, mass distribution, and worker purchasing power were the answer to economic depression. Roosevelt called him “an analyst who was able, by mathematical calculations, to make plain to us that our modern mechanism of abundance cannot be kept in operation unless the masses of our people are enabled to live abundantly.”

Henry Ford also saw that if he paid workers reasonably, he got better work – and his employees could buy cars from him.

Our business community lacks that vision.

Sadly, today's national Chamber of Commerce is a mouthpiece for the reactionary view on any issue.

The local Chamber didn't deign to discuss the minimum wage initiative with CAFÉ while there was still time to negotiate.

The Chamber also opposed the proposed new National Monument, a highly popular proposal that looked likely to help us economically. Years of discussions involved compromise with a variety of voices.

Yet in the final months, the Chamber submitted a guest column to the Sun-News calling for “cooperation” and “an issue agreed upon locally.” Proponents thought that's what they'd painstakingly worked out.

The guest column claimed there were “no provisions for BLM land releases for the future growth of Las Cruces.” But the areas close to Las Cruces, where such development might reasonably occur, weren't part of the proposal. Did they imagine housing developments on top of Las Uvas or the Robledos, or at Kilbourne Hole? There's ample room for such growth as we're likely to see – or should see, in an arid desert where we're already overtaxing our water supply.

After six years of community discussion built tremendous local support, the Chamber said “Wait, we need to discuss this.”

Shortly before CAFÉ had to finalize its wae proposal, a friend told me the Chamber now wanted to talk. He said the Chamber recognized something was going to happen, and wanted to help shape it. That seemed reasonable, if belated; but soon afterward another Chamber guest column rejected the increase and offered no alternate proposal.

Instead, the Chamber found three friendly city councilors and quickly got an inferior ordinance passed. (Remind you of Steve Pearce's clever effort to confuse monument supporters by proposing very minimal protection after years of opposition?)

I'm no expert. But Greg Smith's recent suggestion that increasing the minimum wage was a cause of the 2007 recession is nonsense. Dangerous shenanigans by banks, investment companies, and mortgage companies created highly risky investment vehicles and an overheated housing market full of bad loans. Officially, the main cause was “widespread failure of financial regulation.” No authority I've read mentions the minimum wage.

Economists don't agree that a wage increase will kill business. But I have good friends who own businesses in town and are strongly opposed to CAFÉ's proposal. I don't know that the proposal is perfect. I wish the business community had engaged in a meaningful dialogue while there was time for improvements.

The City Council vote was a perfectly legal tactic to confuse voters and defeat the CAFÉ initiative. It may succeed. But it was unfortunate. In spirit, the business community reminded me of a kid I knew who used to kick over the Monopoly board if he seemed to be losing.

William Filene, a founder of the National Chamber, would have had coffee with Sarah Nolan and tried to work out the best solution for workers, business owners, and the community.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 6 July.]

[In the column I mentioned two Chamber guest columns.   Earlier, I drafted but didn't finish a response to the one on the proposed minimum wage hike, and have added a bit of that draft below:

Chamber of Commerce President Bill Allen's recent guest column in these pages was disappointing. A mutual friend had me kind of expecting something reasonable.

Allen nowhere indicated a desire to work things out. He asserted blandly that no one would oppose a “reasonable” hike; but he never gave anyone a hint what he or the Chamber might consider “reasonable.” 

Rather, he took an extremely pessimistic view on the legitimate issue of how the hike would affect small, local businesses. 

Worse, he started talking about “outsiders.” Sorry, Bill. I remember being a civil rights worker in the Mississippi Delta. Fayette County, Tennessee. The white folks, startled by the nascent efforts of local blacks to free themselves, shouted about “outside agitators.” I was indeed an outsider, but we'd come in because local folks wanted and needed us. So “outsiders” has a tinny sound in these old ears, Bill. Suggest you stick to rational arguments on substance. Hell, Jesus and Buddha were probably outsiders in most of the towns and villages they visited; doesn't undermine the wise words they often spoke. 

It also strikes me if that “outsiders” label is a jab at CAFE, because it is not a purely local organization, then it applies to half the businessfolk in town, because McDonald's, UPS, Farmers' Insurance, Hobby Lobby, and the like are not purely local organizations either. They're huge international corporations that exist to make money for shareholders. If we close our ears to local members of CAFE, which at least exists to try to do good, then surely we oughtn't to listen to local employees or franchisees of business corporations, whose charters say nothing about trying to do good.

(Personally, I'd listen to everyone. But then, I'm an outsider. Moved here initially in 1969. Not sure about Mr. Allen.  But maybe we should just listen to J. Paul Taylor, Billy Garrett, Merrie Lee Soules, and Gary Esslinger.  And Robin Westbrock, when she starts talking.)]