Sunday, April 27, 2014

Public Records Request Yields Look at Seeberger Complaints

Thanks to the Public Records Act, Monday I inspected several Internal EEO Complaint Forms made against then-vendor Rick Seeberger. Although partially redacted, they are eloquent evidence that the Sheriff and his Chief of Staff have not been candid with news media.

Sheriff Garrison and/or Seeberger have repeatedly claimed: Seeberger doesn't actually give anyone orders; Seeberger's at DASO to improve morale and there are “just a couple of malcontents”; his teachings weren't religious; there's been no retaliation against folks who complained; and Seeberger's teachings were worth tens of thousands of dollars and many lost person-hours. The documents tend to disagree.

Improved morale? KVIA reported Monday that two-dozen employees have approached the station about Seeberger. About a dozen have complained to me.

No mandatory religiously-oriented training?

Officer X, insisting that “religion does not belong in the workplace,” wrote that Seeberger's religiously-oriented teachings “disturbed me so much that it is affecting me mentally, emotionally, physically (stress) and ultimately affecting my performance and enthusiasm for my job.”

Officer Y stated that “the training being mandated is religious-based and the consultant is referencing biblically-based philosophies and mentions Jesus Christ in the training.” He wrote that the Sheriff told officers “they will not be working for the Sheriff if they do not 'buy in' to the training program.” (Several informants say a Captain on bereavement leave, days before or after his father's death, was told he had to attend training at Mr. Seeberger's compound – or find another job.)

Y added that after Seeberger confronted him and “I told him my innermost thoughts and feelings were private and I did not wish to share them with him, Seeberger responded by telling the whole group “if we all did not get on board with the process we would be working somewhere else.” Y called it “disconcerting” to have a consultant threaten him with loss of his job. “I wake up thinking about the situation and it is causing stress and anxiety knowing there is an upcoming meeting with Seeberger. I am distracted at work daily by old feelings that are dragged up by this mandated training. Seeberger directly threatened participants.” He voices fears of being retaliated against for having beliefs different from Seeberger's.

Having “old feelings dragged up” can be healthy, though unpleasant, at a shrink's office or in personal writing or contemplation; but should we be spending public money to force that on people in the workplace?

Officer Z charges Seeberger repeatedly touched him in ways and places he doesn't want to be touched by Seeberger. Seeberger touched him around the neck and shoulders from behind, while he was seated. Z stated that he didn't care for the touching, and Seeberger removed his hands. However, “Rick Seeberger has continued to touch my person. He has done this approximately four times. He always touches me near my shoulder and neck.”

“I do not understand why Rick Seeberger continues to touch me after I told him in no uncertain terms not to touch me. I am a married heterosexual male, and his advances are extremely distressing.”
Whatever the point of the unwanted touching, why are we paying for it?

Garrison's response? He created a “Chief of Staff” position for Seeberger and made him a county employee, without advertising the position or doing the normal stringent background check.
Several officers who complained about Seeberger used to be among the department's top officers. Now they sit off to the side, commanding nobody and doing paperwork. I'm aware of no complaint against them except their failure to share Garrison's fascination with Seeberger. Garrison says they are performing important functions, working on certification and writing policy.

A recent complaint also expresses a deep concern about retaliation, but a stronger feeling that the writer “cannot in good conscience allow what I believe is a violation of County Policy to go unreported.”

I also reviewed email strings in which Seeberger apparently tries to get two senior officers disciplined for not making compliance with Seeberger's demands their top priority.

My conclusion is that while some of Mr. Seeberger's teachings may be capable of improving his students' insights into themselves and others, help them form and pursue goals, and learn management concepts, Mr. Seeberger's own management skills have been severely criticized. I also hear that the two he wanted to discipline or fire are good officers. They shouldn't be tossed on the slag-heap because they won't mouth Seeberger's words.

Further, one can't help wondering about the supposedly dramatic changes Seeberger's being paid to make. We're told there's no problem with the department's law-enforcement skills. I'm hearing no whisper of corruption or brutality. If the changes are as major and necessary as Garrison suggests, then is the problem one he inherited and spent eight years unable to fix – or one he created? And if it's merely a change in "strategic plan," why bother with it when someone else is about to take over and change things?
[The foregoing column appeared this morning, Sunday, 27 April, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  By the way, it's important to note that the "complaints" I got to see are only the internal ones.   Officials conceded that there were several more complaints, but said that since those went to the EEOC, the County didn't have any copies of them.  I do not know the total number of formal complaints filed by officers about this stuff.]
[As part of the IPRA inspection, I waded through a lot of the "teaching materials" said to be used by Seeberger.  Many involve reasonable management or interpersonal skills principles.   Things that aren't clear include:
-- how a possibly useful one-day seminar, even a weekend session, has expanded into $30,000 worth of teaching by Seeberger as a consultant, then a new chief of staff job?
-- why Seeberger's "reorganization" to improve DASO's "strategic plan" has such high priority, particularly when just as he gets it instituted (if he ever does), a new sheriff will come in -- probably one that will bring his own ideas and won't seriously consider a further contract for a non-law-enforcement  management teacher as Chief of Staff; and
-- whether, if Garrison had a longer tenure, Seeberger's "teaching" would ever reach completion; and -- why county leaders, including the new County Manager, have been so patient with all this.  In my humble opinion, what's going on is just plain nutty -- and destructive of DASO morale.  And we continue to shell out public dollars for it, every pay period.  ]


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.] 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Officials and Mental-Health Advocates Query Hospital's Plans

Not everyone's admitting that there was a quick and decisive battle between Memorial Medical Center (MMC), and the City, the County, and some concerned citizens.

According to several sources, MMC closed its psych ward and sought to reject at least one mentally troubled individual whom police brought in for evaluation. Police, following normal procedure by taking the fellow to MMC, declined to take no for an answer.

Tuesday, MMC Marketing Director Mandy Leatherwood completely denied that the hospital had closed the unit, tried to close it, or told anyone it was being closed; that the hospital had refused or tried to refuse anyone service; and that nurses had been transferred from the psych ward.

But non-hospital sources say MMC advised the police April 1 that the psych services were ending. On that date MMC's contract with psychiatrist Dr. Ernest Flores expired. Flores had been overseeing the ward. The two sides have different views on why a new contract could not be worked out.

Mental health advocates were livid. One said the closure made no sense, because even without Dr. Ernest Flores there were other options: Mesilla Valley Hospital, which specializes in mental health, could have done the work under a temporary contract; or UNM or Las Vegas could have sent a team down here temporarily.

Ron Gurley said that the folks leasing the hospital had never wanted the obligation to deal with mental health problems, had tried at the last-minute to get that requirement removed from the lease, and might now be looking for a way out. “To use a basketball analogy, we need to keep a full-court press on them,” he remarked, adding that there were additional “curmudgeons standing by.”

“I see this as a public health, public safety catastrophe waiting to happen,” County Commissioner Wayne Hancock commented, adding that “this calls for us to get this crisis triage center up and running quicker than we ever anticipated.”

What apparently happened (despite MMC's refusal to talk about it) is that when the Flores contract expired, with no replacement for him, MMC transferred some staff and tried to avoid performing mental health assessments or treatment. Reportedly police brought one unidentified psychotic individual to the E.R., as usual, but the E.R. doctor initially refused to take him. The police didn't back down. The E.R. doctor did, and the patient was assessed and shipped to Mesilla Valley Hospital.

City and County lawyers huddled over the lease and pointed out that it was questionable whether MMC could close the facility at all, and that it was absolutely clear MMC had to give 30-days' notice if it wanted to try.

Both City Manager Robert Garza and County Manager Julia Brown reportedly urged MMC to back off on the closure. One public official says that their message to MMC was, “You guys can't do that” and added, “It's explicit in the lease that MMC will continue to provide mental health services.”

Under that pressure, MMC backed off and conceded its obligation. (One source said that the concession occurred on Friday afternoon.) MMC is reportedly negotiating a contract with Mesilla Valley.

I asked Garza why MMC couldn't have prepared a contingency plan involving Mesilla Valley, or even a temporary team from UNM or Las Vegas. He said that MMC had told him it was surprised by the failure to come to an agreement, and had thought it had a reasonable solution with Dr. Flores. When I called Flores, he was reluctant to discuss the negotiations but said that he and another doctor had provided what they thought was a reasonable proposal, giving MMC two months' notice plus another two weeks, and was surprised when there was no counter proposal. He also said he'd suggested a deal with Mesilla Valley as a solution.

One official said that although service was cut off, MMC was not just turning people away without assessing them. The hospital was essentially referring potential psych patients to Mesilla Valley Hospital – e.g., telling the apparently mentally ill person s/he should go there and where it was – and that “We're telling them that's not enough.”

Although MMC says nothing notable happened, the incident raises a number of questions.

Are critics correct that MMC is looking for an excuse to get out of the commitment to provide psych services under its lease? (Psych services are notably not as profitable as, say, cardiac services.) Are they also right that MMC is in trouble, and those who run it may be looking for someone to sublet or assign their lease?

At a minimum, the incident reminds folks like me, who remember the Hospital from before it moved up to Telshor, that what was a hospital is, as one of its executives used to say, “a quasi-public hospital,” and that the emphasis has moved to the word “quasi.” Public officials tended to be candid and forthcoming about this incident. The quasi-public MMC reminded us it's there to make a profit, not primarily to serve.
[The above column appeared this morning in the Las Cruces Sun-News. ]
[ Meanwhile, it was a busy week, in ways related to a couple of past and future columns.
On Tuesday, county voters resoundingly defeated a proposal for a tax to fund the
Doña Ana Soil & Water Conservation District.  An earlier column had advocated just that result; but we learned during the discussion how valuable an entity a soil & water conservation district could be if it were actually dedicated to thoughtful and imaginative steps toward conservation.  A future column, perhaps next week, will discuss what I think we learned -- and express my resolve to learn more than I now know about the subject.  Simply patting ourselves on the back over this vote, and forgetting again that soil and conservation districts exist, would be wrong.
On Thursday we had to complete our correspondence to the Extra-Territorial Zoning Commission regarding the proposal to zone the area right beneath Tortugas Mountain commercial -- despite the inappropriateness and possible illegality of such zoning.  The mountain has cultural and religious significance and is used by two different tribes from Tortugas for pilgrimages, and the recreation center there is incredibly well-used by hikers, bikers, and picnickers who don't want to be looking down at a nearby McDonald's or Sonic.  There are no similarly-zoned parcels adjacent to this one; the school is quietly not very happy about potential fast-food eateries nearby, the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum would prefer the land not be used for activities that disturb its animals or detract from the attractiveness of the museum to visitors, neighbors don't want the noise or excess traffic and lights, and that extra traffic could even pose not just delays but dangers, with students speeding to and from the high school.   The ETZ will meet on this next Thursday at 6 at the County Commission Chambers at 845 Motel Blvd.  Public input is part of the procedure.
Thursday night, Brad Lancaster spoke.  The event exceeded our fondest hopes.  Brad gave a great talk -- insightful yet fun -- and we were delighted that so many local citizens (and folks from El Paso and Silver City) cared enough to spend the evening hearing about water harvesting, compost, and other practical and sometimes creative ways to make the best use of what we have.   Credit City Councilors (including Miguel Silva and Gill Sorg) for helping arrange the venue, Brad for reducing his usual fee, Jeff Anderson and the Master Gardeners for coming up with the money to pay that reduced fee, and my wife, Dael, for indefatigable efforts both to get the word out and to help arm Brad with specific local facts about our county's climate, rainfall, water usage, and the like.  People who attended walked away inspired and grateful.  I was glad to have been able to help make it happen.]

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Further Thoughts on DASO

I'm still investigating the DASO problems I discussed in two columns several weeks ago.

I've done a few things.

First, I have repeatedly asked Sheriff Todd Garrison, and his new Chief of Staff, Rick Seeberger, to email DASO employees stating that they may speak honestly to me without fear of reprisals. That's what the New Mexico Whistleblowers Act promises, so reprisals would be illegal anyway. Shouldn't we air issues voluntarily, rather than pay for the County to defend costly employee lawsuits later? Still, they've sent no such email. They've not even replied that they will or won't do it.

Second, I filed a public records request. In my view the Sheriff and County haven't fully complied with it.

There are certain emails I haven't yet seen, but that appears to be more a misunderstanding than anyone hiding anything.

There are also complaints that were made against Rick Seeberger, before he was a County employee arguably entitled to confidentiality under the personnel exemption. I contend those employee complaints are public records. County lawyers apparently disagree. I've asked that they respond, either agreeing or explaining their position. I've suggested they compromise by producing these records with sensitive information (employees' identities) redacted. And I've urged them to supply a list of withheld documents, identified sufficiently for someone to determine their basic nature and the basis on which they're withholding each.

County lawyers haven't deigned to reply to informal requests, so I'll send them a letter with a deadline, hoping they respond. Under the law, if I must file a lawsuit forcing compliance, the County could end up paying $100 a day plus my legal fees. I hope the County complies voluntarily.

Third, I've continued to listen to what people who work for Sheriff Garrison tell me. Sometimes DASO employees I don't know just appear beside me somewhere and quietly thank me for shining a light on these matters. Others speak at more length. Of others, I hear second-hand that they would like to voice their concerns to me.

It's my strong impression that for at least some employees Mr. Seeberger is the boss from hell. There are signs that Garrison and Seeberger have seriously damaged DASO morale. As one employee remarked, “It breaks my heart, because there are some very fine officers in the Department.”

And I've been working my way through the documents the County has produced.

Those documents tend to corroborate that in hiring Mr. Seeberger the County didn't give him the scrutiny they'd give a trainee. I also have questions about some of his responses to the written questionnaire he filled out.

An anonymous complaint alleges, “Employees have voiced their concern about Seeberger and have been moved to menial positions.” The new organization chart shows that some formerly major figures in the department have been moved off to the side. Garrison says that's because they're needed to work on the departments' accreditation.

But the main sense I get from the documents is that we have paid too much for something we may not have needed.

The County paid Mr. Seeberger $30,000 or more for training before he was an employee. That “training” also cost extensive lost employee time, with people paid to attend sessions and travel to and from Mr. Seeberger's compound near the El Paso border. Was the total cost $50,000? More?

The training concerned playing well with others, being a good manager, reading people better, and the like – not how to use new weapons or ensure everyone's safety when arriving at a possible crime scene. Reviewing the training materials, I see some good stuff, but a lot of fluff. I see obvious observations about human interactions, maybe worth a short lecture. I see material that seems to use important-sounding names, slogans, and categories to make concepts look so complex that you need continuing help from an expert to master them.

I saw a “Personality Test” of the sort you can find free online. We paid the Seebergers $25 apiece for the tests, and probably something for interpreting results. One DASO officer described taking much the same test online, free, with the same interpretation we paid Mr. Seeberger for.

Let me be clear: this isn't about Mr. Seeberger, although I doubt his contribution as a management and organizational consultant warranted paying $30,000 or $50,000. then hiring Seeberger to do more of the same. (Did he fail as a trainer or are our employees kind of slow?)

This is on Sheriff Garrison. Seeberger's doing what he does, perhaps with the best intentions. It's Garrison who's wasting our money on more of Mr. Seeberger's services than we might have needed. Distracted from their basic duties, officers are spending too much time reporting to Mr. Seeberger regarding the continuing “reorganization.” Sadly, they're looking over their shoulders, uncertain whom to trust.

Maybe the Sheriff could begin restoring trust by assuring DASO employees that they may speak honestly, without fear of the kind of retaliation the NM Whistleblowers Act forbids.
[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 6 April, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]