Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rainwater Harvesting Expert Brad Lancaster to Speak in Las Cruces


We drink it. We need it. We eat plants and animals that can't live without it. And we know potable water is scarce and will soon be scarcer.

Almost every previous civilization faced with drought has practiced some form of rainwater harvesting. Ours really hasn't.

On April 10th , Brad Lancaster will visit Las Cruces. Mr. Lancaster has studied the world's water-harvesting practices and experimented extensively with them. His desert home resembles, in Gary Nabhan's words, “a walk-through encyclopedia” of the world's water-harvesting methods. He's advised Tucson and other municipalities how to apply some of these methods.

His talk here will be free, thanks to the Doña Ana County Master Gardeners and the Las Cruces City Council. He speaks at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 10th at the Rio Grande Theater. (Doors open at 6:30. Mr. Lancaster will mingle with guests until his presentation, then stay to answer questions and sell books afterward.)

Water is way too important to leave to politicians and corporations. We should each learn what we can about harvesting it, using it, and conserving it. Many of the methods that Lancaster will discuss (and explains in more detail in his books) we could each employ, without a big budget or extensive technical knowledge. Others, such as greywater and stormwater harvesting, we should demand our city or county employ.

The key is to gather as much as possible of the rainwater we do get, so as to use it as long as possible.

That may sound goofy in Las Cruces, where rain's a rarity.

But Tucson's pretty similar, with annual rainfall under 12 inches.

Twenty years ago Brad and his brother began to harvest rain from the roof of their home on 1/8th of an acre in Tucson. They now harvest rainwater on that urban lot and an adjoining right-of-way.

How much fresh water can you acquire that way? Couldn't be much. But wait: would you believe 100,000 gallons annually?

According to the USGS website, the average person uses 80-100 gallons per day – 29,200 to 36,500 gallons per year.

Brad's 100,000 gallons is enough for three people, including water for their shade trees. One Saturday they illegally cut through a small concrete curb protecting their land from water running down the street. They let the water in. They shaped the land to hold it there. They shared this secret with the whole neighborhood, Dunbar Springs. Now Dunbar Springs harvests two acre feet of water a year – enough to cover two acres with water a foot high.

Diverting the water helps increase the density of trees, and thus the availability of shade (and fruit from the trees). Trees help increase rainfall. Diminishing the amount of water on the roads reduces potholes.

Rainwater's not only free, it's far better for plants than groundwater, which grows increasingly salty and brackish as we drill more and more deeply into our underground supply.

We require just a small mental adjustment: instead of engineering ways to get water to flow away, let some of it stay and make itself useful. As Lancaster says, “It's insane that we're spending all these resources bringing inferior water to this place when we have a much higher quality, salt-free water falling from the sky.”

This ain't a Progressive Voters' Alliance vs. the Tea Party issue. Thinking folks of all political complexion should agree. Doesn't matter whether you're harvesting rainwater because it saves on your water bill, because you don't like paying the government for water, because you figure climate change will deepen the drought, or because you want to treat your vegetables and trees to better-quality water. It's just common sense.

In 1995, soon after Brad started harvesting, he traveled through southern Zimbabwe. Hearing of a man who farmed water, he went to the country's driest region. He found the water farmer in a very simple office, reading a Bible.

Zephaniah Phiri took Brad to his farm. He had been fired from his railway job in 1964, for political activity against Rhodesia's white-minority government. They said he'd never work again. To support his family of eight, he turned to his overgrazed and eroding seven-acres – and to the Bible. Inspired to create a Garden of Eden, but lacking the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, he set out to recreate their abundance from storm runoff.

Over a 30-year period, he created a sustainable system in which rainwater now provides all his water needs. His 7.4 acre farm provides abundant food and fruit.

One chapter in Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond describes Mr. Phiri's work (and, with practical tips and diagrams, the eight principles applicable to all water-harvesting sites). Mr. Phiri says, of land like ours where rain falls fast and leaves fast, “When there are thunderstorms, soil and water try to elope together and run away from my land. It is my job to persuade them to settle down here and raise a family.”

If his books are any indication, Brad's talk should be lively, practical, and interesting.

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 30 March, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  Again, the talk is at 7 p.m. Thursday April 10, at the Rio Grande Theater.  Doors open at 6:30, and Brad will mingle with early arrivals.  He'll also answer questions afterward, sell books, sign books, and chat.]

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.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Weed's View of the "Positivity Garden"

Greg Smith's recent commentary on “Tending a garden of positives: weeding out all the negatives” reminded me of three things.

One was a sign I bought a friend when we were working on a trial: “It doesn't matter how fast you drive if you don't know where you're going.”

Another was the historical incident at the start of the book Longitude.

Before we had a reliable way to determine longitude, navigation at sea was a challenge. Because a difference of opinion could lead to mutiny, the Brits made it illegal for anyone but the Captain and the Navigator even to attempt to keep track of the ship's position.

On one occasion, when the Navigator said to turn north, a sailor spoke up. He said they were well east of where the Navigator thought they were, and that if they turned North immediately they would soon run aground.

He must have believed what he said, since he knew that the penalty for keeping his own calculations was hanging, which sentence was carried out before sunset. The ship had already turned north. Early that morning it ran smack into the islands the sailor had mentioned. Almost all hands were lost, but the Captain survived long enough to crawl up onto the beach and lie there until a woman scavenging in the wreckage spotted his expensive watch and killed him.

Regrettably, Greg takes folks to task for disagreeing with him about Spaceport America and a plaza in Downtown Las Cruces. He defines the opposition as “negativity.” He implies that it's negativity for the sake of negativity, referring to “the negativity campaign” and “their overbearing negativity.” He more than implies we should simply ignore the naysayers, writing, “To ignore them is to deny them the inroads they desperately seek to establish” and that ignoring them can “contribute to the quality of life enjoyed here.”

For the record, I don't yet know enough to take a firm position on either. Regarding Spaceport America, I'm a bit of a skeptic. I thought Bob Hearn – whom I don't think of as particularly negative – raised some serious issues. When we discussed them on radio, I thought the gentleman rebutting him exuded complete confidence and provided some good answers. I'd have been interested in further discussion to hear Bob's rebuttals to those answers.

On the plaza, I'd very much like to see one, though since I'm not a city councilor I haven't weighed the costs against other municipal expenses. I think that if done right (a significant “if”) it would provide value to the community more than the financial calculations alone might suggest. It's something I think we should do, unless the costs are absurd; but I worry we'd make it too glitzy, too plastic, too perfect, too something. It can't be a plaza full of history; but neither should it feel false.

My real concern with Greg's commentary goes to the abstract concept: that negativity (defined as disagreeing with the mayor pro tem?) is inherently valueless or counter-productive. (I like and respect Greg, and doubt he meant to sound as if he wanted to squelch dissent.)

Marine navigation aside, naysayers can raise important questions we sometimes lose sight of in our haste to reach whatever we think the goal is.

Granted, some people will find the negative in anything. Granted, there will always be some citizens who define a successful city counsel meeting as one in which they got to take some real good shots at someone in power. Granted, some people will take even the most absurd position if their particular political party espouses it. (But it probably lacks grace for the mayor pro tem to say these things.)

But Bob Hearn is not that sort of citizen, and his questions about Spaceport America (which he said were designed to get people thinking about the matter, not to state a conclusion they should reach) were non-frivolous. Recent resignations by the some of the key players in Virgin Galactic may also be meaningful – or may not.

We have spent plenty of taxpayers' money on a bold gamble. I hope it pays off. But it remains a gamble so far. For citizens to question it seems pretty reasonable to me.

The argument that “Well, we're doing it, so all these questions just gum up the works” could be a good one in certain circumstances. More often it actually betrays the uncertainty of the persons speaking so confidently. If public questions or criticisms can harm the Spaceport America effort, then that effort is probably doomed anyway.

Maybe I hear Greg's words with the jaundiced ears of a columnist. Too often people make me aware of serious problems, though their jobs could be at risk if anyone knew we'd talked. Authorities tell me that everything's fine and criticisms just make people nervous. Then I dig deeper and find the problems are real.

Finally, the third thing Greg's “garden” analogy reminded me of was the well-known saying among gardeners that there are no weeds, just plants that happen to be growing where we don't want them.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, under the perhaps unfortunate title "Is City Driving Fast toward an Unknown Destination."  Although the headline is a snappy and clever reference to an anecdote in the column, which is good, it may give the impression that I was criticizing a bunch of recent decisions by the City Council.  I wasn't.  I was gently poking fun at a column by the Mayor Pro Tem that I felt was a little heavy-handed.   For the most part, I think the current city councilors, including Greg Smith, are fine people doing a fine job.
My point was and is that dissenting views and criticism have a legitimate, even an important place in democratic government.  Yeah, it's unfortunate that some folks criticize merely to criticize, or merely to hear themselves talk.  Sure, that can be frustrating to folks trying to run a city or a county.  But doesn't it kind of come with the territory?  Isn't that particularly so when the subjects are well-intentioned expenditures of large amounts of our money toward interesting goals one could reasonably doubt we'll ever reach?]

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger

I still can't see why Richard J. Seeberger should be Chief of Staff in the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department. He's never been a cop or a deputy. He has a few semesters of college. If he has unique or magical “leadership” secrets to impart to our deputies, he could be a temporary consultant.

Sheriff Todd Garrison says Seeberger doesn't command anyone; but when every soul in the department knows Seeberger has extraordinary control over Garrison, Seeberger commands them. Questions I asked Garison in a meeting often got answered by Seeberger. When Garrison started to answer, Seeberger often interrupted and answered for him. Nor was my experience unique.

Why Garrison genuflects to Seeberger isn't clear. He and the County hired Seeberger without normal background checks – or he pressed HR to ignore that background.

Garrison says Seeberger can re-focus the department and instill “leadership” and communication skills Garrison has long wanted to instill. Others guess maybe Garrison has, or has been led to believe he has, a post-DASO career with Seeberger's consulting business. Seeberger says, “That's not true.”

Seeberger suggested I read The Journey, a book he co-wrote with his wife and self-published in 2012. (When I picked up the book I had to sign and date an acknowledgment that I'd received it from him.)
He said it showed their life journey to where they are now, and said it illustrated how they'd learned from their mistakes. I thought it might be . . . well, I hoped maybe . . . a come-to-Jesus confession of sin and redemption and genuine change and growth.

But the “mistakes” mostly involve trusting others who prove untrustworthy. So far, there's no hint that the Seebergers were ever really at fault for anything. There are allegations of fraud and betrayal against many people and businesses, most unnamed.

Their history includes two personal bankruptcies, some corporate bankruptcies, and plenty of lawsuits. Seeberger says he himself is currently involved in five lawsuits.

Most folks never sue anyone, unless it's over a car accident. I've personally had a few situations where misunderstandings or bad luck could have led to litigation, but we settled on a liveable compromise. I've never sued anyone personally. I've occasionally threatened to sue if something wasn't changed, but either it was changed or we compromised.

Asked about their many lawsuits, Seeberger says that “When you teach integrity, as I do, and you have individuals who attack you in that area, there's really only one choice you have. You have to stand up and defend your integrity.”

Or does he use corporate structures to evade paying people what he might owe them in an ethical sense? An adversary who Seeberger admits has a $200,000 judgment against his 20-20 Leadership Foundation, Inc. is suing Seeberger personally, alleging fraudulent transfer of assets. Is Seeberger's conduct legal? A judge or jury will eventually decide. (The Seebergers' book explains that such luminaries as Mark Twain, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Donald Trump each went bankrupt.)

KVIA did some advertising for one of the Seebergers' entities, Build a Stronger Future. (BASF, which DASO is in contract with, is technically owned by Seeberger's wife, and in a flyer they proudly announce it's “100% woman-owned.) When KVIA sued to get paid the $20,000 it was owed, BASF counter-sued for $1 million. Seeberger says KVIA never proved it ran the advertising, and his wife's corporation got zero hits on its website from the advertising. Again, courts will decide the matter.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Mott appears tired of the Seebergers. They filed their second personal bankruptcy and were discharged in 2007. They re-opened the bankruptcy in 2008 and were discharged again. They asked again in 2009, saying they now wanted to sue Bank of America, and Judge Mott permitted that. They lost. Then they asked again in September 2012, “suggesting possible mistakes by their prior counsel years ago during their bankruptcy case in connection with an entiry called ORSA Institute LLC.” Mott told 'em to go away. He wrote, “[A] debtor does not have eternal access to federal court for all alleged disputes related in some way to a bankruptcy case that has been closed for several years.” He had already dismissed the Seebergers' efforts to use bankruptcy with ORSA Institute, with Seeberger's agreement. “Now, the Seebergers want to try yet again and create another litigation platform in this Court for alleged disputes by reopening this very old Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. Simply put, enough is enough.”

One chapter in The Journey describes “entitlers.” Entitlers feel entitled to everything.  They “do not want to take personal responsibility . . . it is always someone else's fault they lost something.” “They clog our courts with frivolous lawsuits.”

I feel bad about writing all this. I had coffee with Seeberger Wednesday, and he's an affable, intelligent fellow who projects a strong belief in what he's doing. But so far, what I've learned remains troubling.

The situation troubles DASO employees, County Commissioners, and the public. I'm pretty sure even the HR Department is embarrassed and annoyed that they didn't or couldn't oppose Garrison, an elected official, on this one.

I've requested relevant documents. I'll try to attend a training session. I may write a third column about this; and there's further information on my blog.

But I'm with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Mott: “Simply put, enough is enough.”
A good leader knows when to step away.

[Three corrections from previous column: Mr. Seeberger gave the PTA in L.A. “an unsigned check” rather than “a worthless promissory note” (although the L.A. Times reported both); he has sold no EduKits to DASO; and DASO is paying him a little less than had been reported.]
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 9 March; and the newspaper also editorialized on the subject on Friday, 7 March.   (I did not contribute to the editorial.)]

[It seems as if people inside and outside DASO question the Sheriff's action in creating the Chief of Staff position specially for Seeberger and placing Seeberger in it without advertising the position at all.

Seeberger is a smart fellow, and can be personable.  He is said to have skills in teaching management, leadership, organization, and the like.   He's done it for years, and in the past couple of days a couple of former clients told me recently that they were satisfied with their dealings with him (though one added that a former associate whom Mr. Seeberger has blamed for some problems, Ronald Woods, was a better trainer than Seeberger.).  Saturday Mr. Seeberger sent me copies of people's rave reviews of him at one-day "Value-Based Leadership and Managing Change" workshops he and his wife have put on at the City of El Paso Supervisory Academy four times during the last 12 months or so. If he were conducting an occasional training session with DASO, maybe no one (except people who complained that he mixed religion in) would be complaining seriously. 

But he's never been a cop or a sheriff.  Or a patrolman or deputy sheriff.

There also seem to be more than a few people who trusted him or invested with him and didn't make out very well.  That doesn't mean he's dishonest.  He may just be overly optimistic, and spend his (and perhaps others') money in ways that just don't pan out. He may have run into a lot of bad luck.
These facts, plus a couple of complaints about him, raised questions.

As often happens, the response to those questions raised more questions.  Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger have insisted he actually doesn't order anyone around.   Others disagree.  As I stated in the column, I doubt anyone's actively disobeying Mr. Seeberger, when everyone sees the hoops Garrison has jumped through for him.  Further, I suspect that once I see departmental emails, one subject of my IPRA request, we may find that Seeberger does tell people what to do on occasion. 

Mr. Seeberger insisted the other day that Sheriff Garrison didn't make Seeberger's training sessions, conducted as a consultant before this Chief of Staff business, mandatory.  Then he retreated to saying, "Sheriff Garrison can answer this but certain training within any organization is mandatory."   I think that when the evidence becomes available it may show that Sheriff Garrison told people they had better attend if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger insist that everyone in DASO is completely on board with what they're doing except "a very few malcontents."  I'm not convinced.  I'm curious.  I've heard the department has been "fractured" by all this.  Mr. Seeberger gave me a list of five persons he said where wholly on board.  I've sought the Sheriff's permission to speak freely with those and the rest of the command staff, on a strictly confidential basis, with the Sheriff guaranteeing that folks who talk with me won't be retaliated against.   It will be interesting to see whether he will do that -- or hide behind the fact that he has no legal obligation to do it and the fiction that those who work in DASO do not have reason to fear possible retaliation.  

What's next?  There's said to be an investigation going on by an outside agency.  County Manager Julia Brown confirmed Friday that it hasn't been completed.   I don't even know precisely what aspect(s) of the situation the agency is investigating.  I've heard informally that additional complaints have been made, concerning Mr. Seeberger's conduct as a DASO chief of staff, but I have no idea what may happen with those -- or what should happen.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Questions About a Surprising Hire by the County Sheriff

Dona Aňa County Sheriff Todd Garrison must figure no one cares what he does, since he's near the end of his term, but hiring an apparent con man as Chief of Staff seems a little much. 
 It's also spectacularly unpopular within DASO.

First Garrison forced officers to attend “training sessions” run by one Rick Seeberger. 

Officers complained that Seeberger's training included religion, which would be improper at a mandatory gathering of public employees. (HR Director Deborah Weir denied the complaints, reportedly ruling that (1) Garrison did tell people they'd get fired if they didn't attend, but wouldn't really have fired anyone and (2) The inspirational talks featured Jesus, but in a historical sense, not a religious sense. 
Background research quickly triggers an avalanche of embarrassing details about Seeberger.

Possibly Garrison thought Seeberger's leadership was exemplified by the string of bankruptcies, complaints, lawsuits, broken friendships, and contempt of court orders Seeberger has left trailing behind him like muddy footprints.

Public records show he's created at least ten companies, most “not in good standing” or bankrupt. Seeberger filed for personal bankruptcy in 1985 and in 2006 – and people who know him say he may well do so again fairly soon. One of his corporations has filed for bankruptcy three times – each time shortly after a judge issued an order against Seeberger . 
According to a May1985 story in the Los Angeles Times, a PTA Fundraiser involved first-graders selling chocolate Santas and such for a company called “Community Fundraisers, Inc.” The kids brought in more than $17,000 in less than three weeks. CFI never paid the school a nickel.

“I think it's terrible that anyone could do this to the school and children,” said one parent. 
CFI did provide an unsigned check that wasn't any good, and a worthless promissory note. The company also offered the “incredulous” PTA officials another fundraiser in which CFI would donate its share of the profits.

Rick Seeberger was the contact with the school; he was the CEO, CFO, and director of CFI. CFI was his California corporation. Nevertheless, Seeberger reportedly told the PTA he'd left the company because it couldn't pay his salary, causing him to file personal bankruptcy. 
This is the man Garrison brought in (we paid) to teach leadership to (and reportedly pray with) DASO officers. Then the Sheriff created a new and unnecessary position, chief of staff, for Seeberger. With our tax dollars. (Garrison tried to give the guy $70,000 per year, but settled for close to $60,000.)

Seeberger runs numerous enterprises out of his home. One lawsuit involves three different entities which the court says “conduct businesses out of the home of Rick Seeberger.” Another, his ORSA Institute, LLC has declared bankruptcy – or tried to. He also has Businesses for Christ International, Inc., Community Fundraisers, Inc., the 20-20 Leadership Foundation, Rjs & Associates, Bfc International, Inc., and BFCI Learning Systems, Ltd. 20-20 Leadership filed for bankruptcy in Texas, then withdrew the filing when the bankruptcy judge made an order Seeberger didn't like; then Seeberger filed bankruptcy for 20-20 in New Mexico, but the court wouldn't have it. Near as I can tell, 20-20 has filed bankruptcy three times. Most recently, Mr. Seeberger created BASF (Build A Strong Future) in Irving, TX.

You gotta wonder why one man needs quite so many corporations. 

Why would we hire as DASO “Chief of Staff” a fellow with little or no relevant experience and this appalling trail of inactive corporations, bankruptcies, and fraud allegations? Garrison reportedly announced that no one would report directly to Seeberger, then published a flow chart that seems to have everyone reporting to one captain who reports to Seeberger, who reports only to Garrison.

Seeberger has a high-school diploma and attended Arizona State University for six months. He's talked his way into a host of business deals and training gigs, but so far I haven't found a deal that didn't go sour or a business partner who'll describe him in words we can print. He has several lawsuits going. That alone ought to have sparked concern. 
Instead, Seeberger (now a county employee) is reportedly selling the county “EduKits” at $29.95 a throw, and is publishing plans for the county to endorse him as a consultant to sheriffs' departments around the country. 
I tried to ask Garrison about this. He delegated Undersheriff Eddie Lerma to call me back; but Lerma, who hadn't been involved in the decisions I questioned, didn't really have a lot of answers. (I hope to speak with Sheriff Garrison soon.)

You gotta wonder at Seeberger's eloquence and articulateness; but even so, you gotta wonder how nobody at the county questioned the guy's background. 
And you gotta wonder whether Todd Garrison could look those L.A. schoolkids and parents in the eye and explain this move to them.

[Note: this is the first of two columns that will deal with this situation. The second will explain why what's going on may be significantly worse than this column makes it seem.]

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 2 March.  It represents my opinions, and not necessarily those of the Sun-NewsI'm continuing to investigate the subject.  The column and the further comments below represent my opinion at this point.]

As the column notes, I had tried for days to reach Sheriff Garrison.  (I absolutely do not mean to imply that he was ducking me.  After I'd sent in the finished column, he reached out to me and spent well over an hour with me on Friday, probably closer to two, and had Mr. Seeberger with us.) 
Had we met earlier, how would the column be different?   I would certainly have included some of the things Garrison and Seeberger said in response to my questions, and I'll try to summarize some of that below.  Mr. Seeberger corrected or tried to explain several facts, many of them minor:
-- that BASF was technically started by his wife, not by him;
--that he was working only a 30-hour week (and thus receiving a pro-rated part of the "close to $60,000 I'd been told);
-- that a Jerry Thiesen (or the failure of a company Thiesen and Seeberger had invested in) was really ultimately at fault for the failure to pay the L.A. grade-school PTA;
-- that a Ronald Woods was really responsible for the ORSA bankruptcy, because (according to Mr. Seeberger) Woods owed ORSA $150,000 and decided not to pay it;
-- that the three times 20-20 declared bankruptcy then withdrew the filing were each connected to settlement discussions; and
-- that the $200,000 judgment against his companies in one case had actually been stipulated to or agreed to.

But he didn't really dispute the major points.  Some of his corrections he seemed to contradict moments later.  For example, when I referred to Orsa as his corporation (or LLC), he quickly stated, "I'm a member of Orsa"; but moments later, when he stated that "we" decided to put the company into bankruptcy and I asked who the "we" was, he replied, "My wife and I."  That seemed to evidence the kind of control that I'd thought he had, and that the "member" reference appeared designed to contradict. 

Has the basic opinion expressed in my column changed?  Not yet.  Mr. Seeberger still has a record that would not encourage me to hire him; each incident may be explainable, but I think I'd have pressed harder than Sheriff Garrison did to hear those explanations, and then I'd have investigated them.   It's clear that corporations controlled largely or wholly by the Seebergers left a lot of people short a lot of money; it's clear that at least some of those situations have resulted in judgments against his companies, while I know from my own research that other people express deep fear of him.

I think Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger underestimate the negative feelings Seeberger's appointment has caused within the DASO, where morale may have tanked; and Mr. Garrison's passionate defense of the hiring, which I think was sincere, hasn't yet persuaded me.

Interestingly, although Seeberger appeared to suggest that blame for several incidents really belonged elsewhere, he conceded that aspects of his record looked bad; but he also said he and his wife had written a book in 2012 that 'fessed up to some mistakes and problems but showed how he had learned from those mistakes and was a better teacher of leadership because of what he'd learned from mistakes.  He also said he'd fully disclosed everything to Sheriff Garrison.  He promised to provide me a copy of the book, and I promised to read it.

The two men estimated that we had spent $28,000 on Mr. Seeberger's training and planning efforts prior to the hiring of him as Chief of Staff.  The contract was with his wife's new company, BASF.   At least some who attended the training session were very unimpressed.

Regarding formal complaints that he'd mixed religion in his lectures (improperly at an event that was mandatory for DASO public officers, Seeberger declined to offer his side of the facts.  He denied he'd done anything improper.  He said an independent private investigating firm had decided he hadn't done anything improper.  (I'd thought County HR Director Deborah Weir had made the decision, and I still think so, but I haven't seen it.)  I'd run across Ms. Weir in watching the Granados trial, and told Mr. Seeberger that I didn't assume her decision was correct -- just as he doesn't agree with judge's adverse decisions in legal cases -- and would like his account of the actual facts, such as whether and how he mentioned Jesus in his training and whether or not there were religious books in the back of the room or quotes from Jesus on the wall.  He said he'd been cleared by an investigator and he wouldn't talk about it.

(I should note that I have nothing against the words of Jesus.  They're great!  I think highly of most or all of them.  I just don't think a mandatory county event can properly preach any religion, and I've been told that the training sessions violated DASO policies.)

Garrison's defense of the hiring is summarized well in James Staley's Saturday morning article in the Las Cruces Sun-News.   I still have questions, and so should county commissioners.  Garrison says the DASO officers are great at law enforcement and perform well, and that there are no real problems; but they don't always fill out forms as well as they might or communicate as well as they might, or they're not well-trained as leaders, and sometimes they're not unified in their approach to something, and sometimes one of them asks Garrison a question, then another does, and it would be more efficient to answer the question only once.  Garrison says Seeberger will remedy these problems, facilitate communications in DASO meetings, and facilitate communications with other county departments.  Although Sheriff Garrison seemed very sincere and passionate, I'm not yet seeing these problems as justifying the expense here.  I'd also opine, based on the record, that the County will ultimately regret working with Mr. Seeberger.  
But I look forward to reading his book.