Thursday, February 26, 2015

Municipal Recall Effort Doomed?

    One hears that City Clerk Esther Martinez may tell the Las Cruces City Council as early as tomorrow morning [Friday] that the would-be recallers have failed to collect sufficient signatures to trigger a special recall election in any of the three districts in which they sought to boot progressive councilors out of office.
     Certainly our own calculations have indicated the recallers have fallen sufficiently short that it's unlikely they can make up the difference in the 15 additional days they get, under the City Charter, to amend the petitions.  Further, I've been amazed by how many people who signed the petitions want to withdraw their names because they were misled into signing in the first place.  I won't get into detail, but talking to some of those people was troubling, because so many everyday, non-political good citizens got gulled so cynically by the recallers.  That's not how elections -- or petition drives -- are meant to be conducted.   The recallers' conduct didn't comport with ethical constraints, state laws, or basic Christian religious principles.   The latter seem relevant because several of the recall leaders claim to be serious Christians. (Isbell says he's some kind of Christian minister, while Coppedge and others who backed the thing financially purport to be strongly Christian.)  I don't think Jesus would have approved using flat-out lies to fool people into punishing city councilors for supporting a minimum-wage hike.
    What part of that conduct do they suppose Jesus would have approved of?  We know he was pretty sympathetic to the poor and oppressed.  We know he told us it was tough for a rich man to make it to heaven.  He at least hinted that humility and compassion were better ways to get there than greed and arrogance.  We know he was a truth-teller, who gave hypocrites a rude awakening.  Certainly neither history nor the gospels  contain incidents in which he was lying, defaming people, or acting out of pure greed.  Or hatred.  He did make clear that folks who made a big show of their piety but had no time for the needy weren't likely to  meet his Father in heaven.

    So I hope some of those who call themselves Christians but lied to help this vicious recall effort along will take a moment to explain, at least to themselves, how they harmonized their conduct with their beliefs.
    I don't mean to sound preachy.  I don't mean to judge, because I agree with Jesus that judging other people isn't my right, although I also readily concede my conduct isn't always up to the mark on that one.  But I do mean to suggest, respectfully, that some folks meditate a little on some things.

    In the more political realm, what's this development mean?
    It means that the sooner the charter-authorized procedures drive a stake into the heart of the recall effort, the quicker the city can make some progress on healing the divisions that recent controversies deepened.
    It does not mean that the folks behind the recall are through, though.  As some of them have announced, they'll be running candidates for city council and county commission, trying to seize control of our local government.  They'll spend plenty of money on it.   I've heard that one failed city council candidate has reportedly threatened to seek to recall some county commissioners.
     But for the moment, people in three city council districts have rejected lies and hatred because they happen to like and respect three hard-working and honest councilors, Olga Pedroza, Gill Sorg, and Nathan Small.  Kudos to the three -- and the citizens of their districts.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on the State of the City

I attended Mayor Miyagashima's State of the City address Wednesday for the first time.

The speech, available on the City's website, was thoughtful, forward-looking, and – at least in intent – healing. He dealt straightforwardly with the minimum wage brouhaha, praised both CAFé and certain business owners, and said the City was better off for the experience.

Above all he characterized city government as something we're building together.

We can differ on whether some projects are wise or well-planned; but no one could reasonably suggest the City shouldn't be providing amenities such as the Munson Center, with its incredible impact on the lives of many seniors and their families; youth sports and recreation programs; or parks and pools.

I don't agree with the City Council about everything. Will the Spaceport be a complete bust? Will the Downtown Plaza be worth the cost? How well did the City handle development plans for the old country club, both substantively and procedurally? How many of the complaints about city officials' attitudes were reasonably avoidable? The City's legal department – like the County's – deserves a column of its own. (One interesting question is exactly who is the client of a city or county attorney.)
Miyagashima stressed his hope to make the City as responsive and service-oriented as a five-star hotel. I hope he can. He claimed progress had been made during the past year. Maybe so; but we've a ways to go.

What I do see and much appreciate is a group of reasonably intelligent people working consistently toward the public good. I see Councilors and the Mayor listening to their constituents and persevering in their duty as they see it despite some internal sabotage and now a divisive and dishonest recall effort. Mostly, I see Councilors with open minds, not vested interests.

Miyagashima was more forgiving than I'd have been in his place; but that's why he's Mayor. He didn't even mention the municipal recall effort.

By the way, the recallers have turned in petitions. The circulators made false and fraudulent statements to citizens, though we can't know how many signatures resulted from fraud. The circulators signed under oath statements that don't appear completely true. If you experienced fraud, or have evidence that they were gathering signatures prior to December 10, please contact me.

People who wish to withdraw their names, for any reason, have an absolute right to do so prior to final action on the petitions' validity. The City Clerk says she needs a signed writing that includes your name, address, and telephone number; and she'd like you to include your best guess on the date you signed, to help locate your signature. Stating your reason for withdrawing your signature is optional, though I'd urge you to include it if you were misled.

Despite the recall blemish, and other problems, our City seems in good shape.
What resonated most in Miyagashima's speech was the sentence, “We're all in this together.” Randy Harris said that to me Saturday, and I've suggested the same in columns; but I heard it in a new way Wednesday.

We are all in this together. I agree, and wish more of us recognized that truth.

Recognizing that we're all in this together doesn't mean I don't fight against the vicious recall effort, or don't work to help the County fire the Treasurer for his sexually harassing conduct. It doesn't mean we don't all criticize and encourage our public officials, to help make our community as grand as our mountain view. Being in this together doesn't mean we don't disagree vigorously, just as neighbors, friends, and family-members do.

We are all in this together, and should keep that in mind.
[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 22 February, and has appeared or will soon appear in other area newspapers and on KRWG's website.   For a different take on the Mayor's State of the City speech, read Walt Rubel's column in this morning's Sun-News.  We independently chose the same subject for our columns today.]
[With regard to the Recall, let me stress this: the recall effort will  likely fail, but it's still important for anyone who was misled into signing petitions withdraw his or her signatures.  A voter has the absolute right to do so, at least until the City Council takes final action. One needs to write the City Clerk, Esther Martinez-Carrillo, requesting his or her name be expunged.  The signed letter must include your name, address, your request, and the date; it should also include your phone number and, if you recall, roughly when you signed; and giving the reason for your withdrawal is optional.
The address is:
City Clerk Esther Martinez-Carrillo
700 North Main St.
Las Cruces, NM 88001
If you have questions, please feel free to call me at 575-five-two-one-0424 regarding this.]
[I should also mention that the more time I spend talking to folks who were fed lies by $12/hr. petition-circulators  as part of the recall effort, the less patience I have with the signature-gatherers' conduct.] 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sometimes Good Things Happen

Lawyers and politicians aren't always popular figures, but sometimes things work out fairly, without wrangling and rancor. Here are three recent examples.

Twice recently I've represented plaintiffs in potential First Amendment litigation.

First, two students who peacefully criticized the National Security Agency at an NMSU job fair were arrested and charged with crimes – unconstitutionally, we thought.

We made NMSU aware of the problem. NMSU did not admit we had a valid claim; but both sides agreed to solve the problem without a trial. NMSU President Garry Carruthers announced the creation of a task force, with members appointed by both sides, to review and amend NMSU's freedom of expression policy and procedures, subject to review by NMSU's Faculty Senate and Administrative Council and, ultimately, Board of Regents approval.

NMSU didn't get its back up or feel compelled to show its power. Our clients wanted right done, and weren't trying to profit from an NMSU employee's mistake. No legal fees or rancor.

The task force has been far more collegial and non-partisan than one might have imagined. You would have a hard time guessing who'd been appointed by which side.

A favorite moment was watching Police Chief Stephen Lopez showing our student-client, Alan Dicker, a huge military-style vehicle outfitted mostly to help the injured in a riot. Alan was taking pictures for a Ground Up story. I recalled campus in the '60's – when such pleasant cooperation would have been unlikely.

The task force has met many times, and our draft revised policy is being reviewed by faculty and administrators.

The second example involved Hidalgo County and the Hidalgo County Farmers' Market. The Market agreed the Southwest Environmental Center could have a booth there on a certain Saturday. But when the SWEC representative appeared, a Hidalgo County Commissioner ordered her to leave. (No talking about wolves in Hidalgo County.)

That seemed an obvious free-speech violation. We brought it to the attention of the County and others involved. The County said that legally it didn't control the Market.

Again, with no admission by either side of anything, we reached a fair settlement. Hidalgo County has stated that grey wolves are an issue wroth discussion. At the County Commission meeting on April 8, SWEC and its opponents will present their views. The Commission may not agree with SWEC, but it'll provide SWEC (and its critics and supporters) a forum.

The County didn't waste public monies making us prove our case at trial. Rather, potential adversaries turned lemons into lemonade.

I've fought extended legal battles, with no quarter asked or given; but there's a special pleasure in seeing folks cooperate to do the right thing. For everyone.

A third neat moment arose in an adoption case.

Two very nice men, long a couple, had adopted a Guatemalan boy decades ago. That boy's a man now. A few years ago, his sister died, leaving a young son. She had asked her bother to bring the child back to Cruces, and the child's father (back in Guatemala) agreed.

The young man and his two fathers tried to start a legal adoption process, and called me after running into problems with another lawyer.

Eventually Judge Fernando Macias heard testimony and approved the adoption. It turned out that his Honor's practice after successful adoption hearings is to let pictures be taken, including shots of the adopted child up on the bench banging the gavel and calling “Order in the Court!” It's a very thoughtful practice. The photos will be meaningful to the families for years, maybe generations. (The Judge has a set of photos on one wall in his office.)

Sometimes people do the right thing.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 15 February.]
[I'd add one thought here: that although people blame lawyers for litigation -- and there certainly are lawyers and law firms that are litigation mills, bringing often meaningless lawsuits purely for the fees, or defending often frivolous legal positions purely for the fees -- in my experience it's more often the client, or both clients, demanding a trial when the lawyers on both sides are pointing out that settlement is likely the better business decision.  
Two underrated lawyering skills are the ability to recognize the true value of a lawsuit and the ability to educate both your own client and your opposing counsel on the subject.  Two lawyers on opposite sides should be able, without giving away their hole cards or projecting weakness, to share material that helps moderate the other side's highest hopes -- and mute the personal outrage of one client or both that often precludes settlement.  
Trials are fun.   Arduous, like a marathon, but mentally invigorating, like some sort of 7-dimensional chess-game.  Intense.  But a very high percentage of the time, the clients' best interest is a reasonable settlement, if only because legal fees can threaten to match the amount in dispute.
So kudos to the people and institutions mentioned in the column for avoiding litigation.]  

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Can't We All Just Get Along?"

Congratulations to Maury Castro and Ed Frank; to DACC; to the few citizens who voted; and to the community, for electing two people who'll do what they can to cut off a few heads of the “Testing” serpent.

Most citizens don't seem to much care or don't feel meaningful change is feasible. But a majority of voters judged right in the school-board election; and if Troy Tudor's candidacy was part of the Chamber's self-proclaimed electoral assault, his fourth-place finish in a four-way race was a small success for opponents of that plan.

Maybe another battle got decided this week, when municipal recall proponents failed to turn in signed petitions.

Apparently petitioners seeking recall of Gill Sorg and Olga Pedroza have failed. As of Wednesday, nothing's been turned in to the City Clerk. We could be close to another victory (or two) in the war certain wealthy businesspeople declared on us.  [Note: by my count, the deadline for two of the petitions passed Monday; this was written Wednesday; Friday all three petitions were turned in -- and I don't yet know whether the recallers will claim they didn't understand the law, claim they got their first signature later than they really did, or just demand extra time.  Or maybe they managed some way to get around the fact that they collected their first signatures by November 28-29.  See discussion below.]

That makes this a good time to skip most of the crowing about victory and to reach out to business leaders. Particularly if those business leaders are about helping local businesses, without getting sidetracked by ideology.

We shouldn't be at war. We're a community. Despite our differences, let's talk honestly and seek solutions together.

Working together starts with talking together, with both sides trying seriously to understand what the other wants and really needs – and each side focusing on facts, not some damned ideology. If a building code provision or an ordinance seriously hurts business, let's specify the harm and try to harmonize competing interests – not debate whether government is too big.

Although there's no excuse for the recall effort, many businesspeople have felt pushed aside during recent years. Citizens and councilors would do well to acknowledge that feeling, despite the recall effort.

Two things are happening in the minds of businessfolk: real complaints about the collision between their needs and the local government's obligations regarding safety, traffic, the environment, etc.; and an ideology that demands as little government as possible – with private enterprise sacred.

Two things are happening in the minds of some city officials: the need to follow the law and fulfill their obligations to the public; and (according to businessfolk) an excess of non-cooperation or fussiness that suggests they're either hostile to business or feel that, “As long as I have some power for a moment I oughtta use it.”

We'd do well to assume that some city officials do conduct business that way. (Not many, I hope.)

Both sides must reach out to each other. Talking is a way of learning the other's language. It's how each of us learns more about the context in which the other appraises things – and talk can build trust and candor.

Sometimes business interests and the public interest necessarily collide; but sometimes we can avoid those collisions or find reasonable compromises to make the next collision less violent. We need to understand what each side really needs.

We're a community! Successful businesses are a plus for all of us. So are healthy workers. So are things that draw more visitors, as the Monument likely will. (Even the dreaded minimum wage will likely help the local economy, though probably not as much as the wage hike in Sea-Tac has. After a bigger minimum wage hike, the city's economy is booming.)

Talking to each other is worth a try. Having real dialogues, not shouting ideological slogans into each other's deaf ears.

If the Chamber insists on a war, I hope this week's events are omens that the Chamber would lose because its policies don't appeal to most citizens.

But I'd prefer peace. Can't we all just get along?

[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 8 February I sent it in Wednesday evening.  Friday afternoon, the Recallers turned in petitions seeking to recall the three city councilors, Olga Pedroza, Nathan Smart, and Gill Sorg.  The petitions regarding Pedroza and Sorg were turned in days after the legal deadline; the campaign to procure signatures was rife with fraud and probably fatal procedural irregularities; and there's a reasonable likelihood that some signatures could be mis-dated in order to evade some of the legal problems.]

[Here's the applicable law, as I understand it.  NM election law [3-1-5]  states in subsection E:
 "E.   A petition filed with a municipal clerk . . . .  If no time period is established by law, petition signatures may not span a period of time greater than sixty days from the date of the earliest signature on the petition, and the petition shall be filed within sixty-five days from the date of the earliest signature on the petition  "
Put another way: If, for example, they procured their first signature on 29 November, then their deadline (65 days) for turning in the petitions was this past Monday (62 days in December-January, plus 30November, plus the first two days in February)   Further, if they got that first signature on 29 November, they were required to stop collecting signatures on January 28 or so, to keep the final signature within 60 days of the first. 
That applies to this petition situation, and the City Clerk so informed the recallers when they picked up petitions. City Charter 7.01 states that where the City hasn't explicitly stated a contrary rule, the applicable state statute applies: "Except as otherwise provided by this Charter, the provisions of the general election laws of the State of New Mexico shall apply to elections held under this Charter."
I had hoped this would be the end of this ugly episode in our city's history.   Deadline clear in the  law, deadline missed.  (The same rules were applied to CAFe.)  However, the recallers will undoubtedly claim a misunderstanding, advance some reason for an extension, or will have fudged some dates, and it will be interesting to see how City officials and perhaps some judges regard the situation. In Small's district, the petitions were probably timely.  (Recallers needed a figurehead within each district to pull the petitions; the one in District 4 had a serious health problem and had to withdraw; so the recallers had to pull a new petition regarding Small.  As I recall, that delayed their start a couple of weeks; thus if, as I was told over at City Hall Friday afternoon, they turned in a petition regarding Small, they're likely within the deadline.)]

[Meanwhile, the folks pushing the recall have accomplished a lot: they've unified against them people in town who care about good government and honesty; and they've alienated even some of their own Chamber members or non-Chamber business owners by the extremism and dishonesty of their statements and conduct.  What they say in public is a pale shadow of what they say to fellow businessfolk, some of whom are appalled.]
[It's in this context that I'd like to see better communication between councilors and progressive citizens, on the one hand, and businessfolk who either are moderate or can leave their ideologies at home and discuss facts and actual practical needs.  We should be helping each other, as neighbors, whether or not we agree on who should be President, whether Roe v. Wade was rightly decided, whether religion should affect state law, or whether our economy is screwed up because of greedy corporations, greedy welfare recipients, or wars.]
[The turning in of the petitions could delay the healing process, as the City Clerk counts the valid signatures on the petitions, as the untimeliness and other problems get dealt with, and perhaps as we go through an undoubtedly rancorous recall election campaign, perhaps regarding only District 4.]  

Sunday, February 1, 2015

On Tuesday's School Board Election

There's a school-board election set for Tuesday, February 3rd.

Is anybody still reading?
I hope so. Whom we choose is important – even if we don't have kid or grandkids in the Las Cruces Public School System. Not only do these folks decide how to spend a bunch of public money, they help determine the educational climate here, which has a bearing on business and quality of life for everyone.

I won't tell you how I'm voting. (My blog post today will explain that, and give reasons.) I can tell you that National Education Association, which doesn't precisely make endorsements, “recommends” Maury Castro in District 4 and Ed Frank in District 5 as the strongest candidates.

I do want to discuss some issues, and some thoughts on how to decide whom to vote for.
Bonnie Votaw, whose retirement from the Board creates a District 4 race without an incumbent, publicized an interesting set of questions for candidates recently – and I'd endorse her questions and add an important one she omitted. (I'll reprint all her questions on today's blog post.)

My additional question is how the board member will approach the relationship between the Board and its hired Superintendent, Stan Rounds. 
In all situations with a board and a CEO or manager, public or private, the relationship between the two is an important and often difficult issue. Here, the Superintendent must give fair consideration to the Board's wishes, but the Board should not unduly interfere in day-to-day business. Transparency – Superintend to Board and, except in personnel issues, Board to public – is important. So is the Board's continued alertness to whether the Superintendent is acting properly. Too often a superintendent, who knows day-to-day operations best, can intimidate a Board.

I don't claim sufficient knowledge to say how this Board should regard this Superintendent; but I do think the issue is one of major concern. The recent snow snafu (in which Rounds was criticized, whether deservedly or not, then responded by claiming consultations with other agencies which the other agencies appeared to deny) is but the most recent of several actual or perceived issues deserving a frank discussion. 
I hope the Board monitors Rounds closely. I don't presume to say what the results would or should be.

Votaw's initial questions focus on a candidates position on the current policy on state-mandated standardized testing questions, as well as the use of student test-scores as a major element in teacher evaluations. 
I think this area is a key issue. The very idea of “teaching to the test” isn't ideal pedagogy. A key factor in successful instruction is the teacher-student rapport, which “teaching to the test” undermines. Standardized tests also: (a) tend to disadvantage students from unusual backgrounds; (b) cause significant and counter-productive stress on teachers and students; and (c) fail to maximize a teacher's chance to really make a difference with students by responding to the specific needs and interests of a class or student. 
Votaw also noted that “several of the candidates are affiliated with different political organizations” and would ask, in essence, how those affiliations would affect a candidate's judgment as a board member and commitment to the best interest of the kids. I can only applaud that question. 

Discussions in classrooms or the Boardroom should feature open discussions, a courteous but candid clash of ideas and facts – not a rigid and redundant reiteration of different ideologies.

I guess I'd add this question too: “What's the best evidence that you'll make decisions based on fair and thorough examinations of facts, not on your general political viewpoint?” 
Please do vote; and perhaps investigate a little first.

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 1 February in the Las Cruces Sun-NewsI also wrote a blog post this week, which specifically discusses some reasons I wouldn't vote for Troy Tudor.    You can reach that one by paging down past the next few paragraphs or by clicking here.  ]

[For the record: I would vote with great enthusiasm for Maury Castro in District 4.  He's a modest, thoughtful, capable man.  To the extent I've observed him, he's shown good judgment,.  He has  extensive relevant experience.  I also learned this week that he worked in the mines for 14 years, going to school at night, earning his GED, then bachelor's, and then master's degrees in educational psychology.  I never worked underground in the mines, but I'm pretty sure that doing that every day and then going to school afterward takes an unusual combination of intelligence, diligence, and dedication.  He's a guy who's experienced "real life" but appreciates education profoundly and has both academic knowledge and a quarter-century of relevant experience.  You ask him a question about the local schools and he gives you an intelligent and thoughtful answer.

You listen to Troy Tudor, you hear a generalized answer or a quick retreat to his political ideology.  He sounds more concerned about business than children.  In fact his position as Chamber of Commerce VP creates a major conflict-of-interest. His alleged conduct in the lawsuit mentioned in the earlier post could raise questions about his respect for law, for his neighbors, and for his own word.  He doesn't appear promising material for a constructive and thoughtful school-board member.  Maury does.

There are two other candidates in that race.  Paul Blevins, whose been involved in the school advisory committees where his kids were in school here, clearly knows the local schools and is dedicated to them; but judging from his answers to KRWG's questions, he sounds a little too comfortable with the predominance of standardized tests, and with how things are currently going.  I'd vote for him ahead of Tudor; he seems like an awfully nice guy; but I don't see him helping to bring change and significant improvement. Paul Garcia also sounds well-meaning and somewhat knowledgeable; as with Blevins, I'd vote for him over Tudor; but Maury Castro seems the best of the four.]

[In District 5, I will vote for Ed Frank.  
I don't oppose Connie Phillips as I oppose Troy Tudor.  She's served on the School Board for some time.  I'd vote for her against a lot of possible challengers. She's dedicated and well-meaning.

I think Frank, a 39-year teacher, will bring to the Board a teacher's knowledge of schools and students.  He is also dead set against the horrible over-use of standardized testing in our schools today, and I have confidence that he'd do what he could, within the law, to bring change.  

Two of the system's big problems are (1) over-use of counter-productive standard tests, combined with the inappropriate use of those to evaluate teachers, and (2) a need to adjust the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent.  (I understand that the former problem involves a state mandate.)  Without singling out Dr. Phillips for blame, both problems have gotten worse during the past few years, as far as I can tell.  Dr. Phillips seems a good person, but as one observer put it to me, "She's too passive."   Adding Mr. Frank to the Board would add a member who seems more likely to bring effective change where it's needed.]