Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Play's the Thing -- and I Enjoyed it!

May I take a break from drought and recall and be playful?

Last Saturday evening we saw “Recreational Living” at the Las Cruces Community Theater.
David Spence's play won a contest among former students of Mark Medoff. The prize was this production at LCCT directed by Mark.

I expected a good evening, because I know and respect Mark; but the performance was more fun that we'd anticipated.

Let's admit first that I'm an old curmudgeon who often leaves the theater growling.

Instead, I was more attentive than usual, with a smile on my face, and laughed a lot. So did my wife and our friends.

Spence and Medoff took risks in both play and staging – and were rewarded with constant audience attention and a lot of laughter. The actors, many of them high school kids, did a great job – a credit to themselves and to Mark.

Sure, some of the material was a little overdone, if you thought about it; but you didn't think about it,you just laughed. It was just plain fun, but also a useful reminder of how seriously we take our foolish selves and how diligently we build the personae we show our peers. Stick to those personae slavishly enough for long enough and we become them. Or we convince ourselves we're they, unaware that most everyone sees through them.

The play opens with an impassioned conversation in which a very mortified kid relates that he's just fainted in class and exposed the crack in his butt, and his best friend tries to reassure him the world hasn't ended.

My wife confessed at intermission that she'd worried we might be in for an evening of butt-crack humor that could become tedious, but was soon reassured on that score. My own reaction was that though the subject was patently silly, the two kids cared about it a whole lot, which made the opening a lot more engaging, a lot more quickly, than many plays in which the actors sort of mark time at the start, letting us get used to them.

It's a goofy and very human play. Thinking about the concept of “willing suspension of disbelief” I wonder this morning whether plays aren't even better when the “suspension of disbelief” isn't so “willing,” but is commanded by the production. Guess that's a long-winded way of saying I liked the play.

And I liked the day. A morning spent at the Farmers' Market acquiring fresh local food for the week and talking with friends. A delicious supper at SI Italiana (which buys local food, a plus for us) before the play. I like it here.

We'd also recently seen – and enjoyed – The Hothouse (directed ably by Algernon D'Ammassa) as well as Other Desert Cities. Algernon put his people through an exceptionally long rehearsal period for the potentially difficult Pinter play, and it paid off. Other Desert Cities is a good play, although we felt a couple of performances could have been better. 
Las Cruces has a rich pool of theatrical talent. (A stray shout-out to Douglas Hoffman in Deathtrap and Claudia Billings in Other Desert Cities.) Not every show's a winner. Too many musicals for my taste, and some other plays I'd rather have missed. But a lot to like, too.
I like the energy and imagination in Las Cruces Community Theater, the Black Box, and the ASTC at NMSU. All three are friendly and push each other's work – not cliquish, jealous rivals. The Hermans, who own and run the Black Box, are also Lifetime Members of LCCT. Actors appear in an LCCT show today and a Black Box production tomorrow.
Besides, recall and drought make one long to escape.

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 29 March, in the Las Cruces Sun-News and will also appear on the KRWG-TV website.  It represents my views, not necessarily those of the newspaper or the television station.]
[I feel almost guilty neglecting all the bad news worth discussing in my Sunday column: the continuing misconduct of the folks pushing to recall three city councilors; the news that someone wants to build a new 90,000-personn city near Albuquerque, when we're in a savage drought; and much more.  I will note that it's highly possible that someone will file suit against the City of Las Cruces, perhaps as early as this week, regarding the Recall matter.  The City Clerk is due to issue her opinion on whether or not the folks seeking to recall Gill Sorg have turned in enough valid signatures to trigger a recall election.  It seems likely that if they haven't, they may sue her; and it seems equally likely that if she decides they have, but some of those signatures were fraudulently obtained, forged, or from unregistered voters who signed the petitions, or from folks who later learned it was a recall petition and asked the Clerk to withdraw their names, the folks who oppose the Recall could seek a court order that the City follow state law and the city charter.]
[Oh -- and I should mention the panel discussion this coming Thursday -- 5 p.m. Thursday, April 2nd, on NMSU's campus on the third floor of Zuhl Library -- and parking's free after 3, I think. "Police, Public and Press -- Shining Light on Officer-Involved Shootings" will look at the battle over release of relevant information after a police shooting.  Panelists should include District Attorney Mark D'Antonio, Walt Rubel of the Sun-News, Mike Kenney from DASO, NMSU Police Chief Stephen Lopez, lawyer Michael Stout, and Executive Director Susan Boe of NMFOG (a state non-profit fighting for open government),  I'll moderate.]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

They're Massacring our Neighbors

Bianca is a farmer and a mother. Her son Jorge is a carefree young man, full of laughter. He plays his guitar and sings to her – when he's not fixing a neighbor's recalcitrant computer. He loves children, and attends a small teachers' college.

But he has disappeared.

Estanislao grows corn and beans and trades in food. Today, wearing a bright red cap reading, “Union Pacific – Building America,” he could be some NMSU student's visiting uncle.

His son Miguel attended the nearby teachers' college. One day a neighbor asked if he'd heard that 43 students had been taken, and that Miguel was among them. He rushed to the college, where another student said he'd seen Miguel taken. Then he searched the hills.

Angel Neri survived the terror. His brother explains that there was a collecta to raise funds for a demonstration. The municipal police attacked, shooting to kill. The massacre spread into town. Federales blocked off streets to keep students from escaping.

Angel called his father and brother, frightened. Previously, police had punched and kicked the students for speaking out, but this was different. Angel hid in a building. Then he and others ran to a clinica.

Soldiers came. Relieved, Angel and the others greeted them as saviors. The soldiers took their belongings and tossed the students back into the street, where the municipal police were still murdering people. Angel and others finally found refuge in a house, where a woman hid them overnight in a small room.

Since, even with the help of human rights lawyers, the parents can learn nothing.

The Mexican Government denies involvement. First it said that the students' bodies were in a mass grave, killed by outlaws; but Mexican forensic scientists disproved that. Then the Government said the outlaws burned everyone at a dump, and threw the ashes in the river; but Argentine forensic scientists dispute that. Other than one bone that apparently belonged to a student, there's no supporting evidence. A story that starts with “no police involvement,” when witnesses saw federal, provincial, and municipal police involved, is not a promising story.

These folks are our neighbors. They have come to the U.S. asking for our support because what else can they do, except shut up and go back to their farms and businesses, silently mourning their sons? They will not be silenced. Nor would we in their place.

We can't do much; but we can protest. We can speak out, with a safety they don't share.

We can write or call our President and Senators, demanding that the U.S. cease shipping weapons to a government that uses them to massacre its citizens. We can urge suspension of economic aid until the Mexican Government tells the truths, apologizes, and disciplines those responsible – and provides credible answers to Bianca and Estanislao, who insist their sons are alive.

These folks want only what we would want. They speak quietly but firmly, acknowledging that when they return they may be punished for telling us all this. Mexican newspapers do not freely discuss the incident.

Their stories are hard to tell, and Bianca wipes away tears as she speaks with me. Their stories are hard to hear, when I can do little more than mumble “Que lastima!

Their sons were – or are – good young men did agricultural work to help the teachers' college make ends meet. They wanted to teach. They wanted to exercise, and teach children to exercise, the kind of critical thinking and speaking we value so highly that our First Amendment enshrines it.
In his village, the children still ask Estanislao where Miguel is.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 22 March, 2015.]
[These folks visited Las Cruces this week on a tour designed to raise our awareness of this incident, the repressive governmental attitudes that spawned it, and the government's arrogant refusal to deal with this as it should have.  It doesn't help that the newspapers in Mexico are not so free to publish factual details and pertinent questions without retaliation.]


For one, express our views on the Ayotzinapa "Disappearances" to our President and U.S. Senators, as well as directly to the Mexican Government.  In addition:

Amnesty Internationall has this campaign regarding Ayotzinapa, with form letters readily available to express your shock and disgust to Mexican officials
SOA Watch has pushed for an end to the Mérida Initiative along with all military training for foreign governments for years.

The US government has actually suspended aid to Mexico before over human rights violations, the most serious being in 2010. But it's always been for very shallow reforms. This year, though, the Obama admin actually gave more offensive aid to Mex shortly after the disappearances.

Action and expressions of opinion in the US to address need not be focused specifically on Mexico to help.  Rethinking our free trade policies could help displace fewer people in Latin America from their land. Anything to stop militarization here will help. More generally, as we've seen around the globe, the U.S. should be a lot more selective than it is in making arms deals.  Flooding the world with cheap arms solves nothing except the bottom-lines of arms manufacturers and dealers.

In particular, the Merida Initiative, through which the U.S. has contributed billions in the past few years to help fight drugs, contributes to the militarization of Mexican police forces --- and to the arrogance that allows them to commit atrocities such as Ayotzinapa against the Mexican people.  One can't say Ayotzinapa couldn't have happened without the Merida Initiative, but continuing to provide an abundance of arms to forces that do such things can't be in our best interest -- let alone the Mexican people's!]

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lies Fuel Recall Campaign

Recently I visited with eighteen voters who'd signed the recall petition against Olga Pedroza.

Each voter asked to take his or her name off the petition. All but one described election fraud, whether or not s/he used that term.

The lies varied.

The first lady said she hadn't signed any recall petition, and wouldn't. Had she signed any kind of petition? Yes, but for some public good. A young boy with her said it was about some parking lot. She then recalled that it was to save the PAL Boxing Gym from being torn down for a parking lot. Recall wasn't mentioned, she said. When she realized the fraud, she was angry.

The recall-targeted councilors have said nothing to indicate they want to close PAL. As one voter pointed out, the City doesn't even own the land. (He was a friend of Austin Trout who'd also been told the petition was to save PAL.)

In late December, the City Clerk warned the recall folks against further fraud. January 12th, PAL's Chairman of the Board published a letter in the Sun-News saying PAL hadn't been threatened, wasn't involved in the recall, and wished the recall proponents would stop misusing PAL's name to hustle signatures.

Petition circulators continued to use the baseless PAL story. They probably know that District 3 voters mostly like Olga Pedroza and favor the minimum-wage hike that elicited the spurious recall effort -- but also love PAL.

There were other lies. One elderly woman, who'd apparently spotted Olga Pedroza's name on the petition and asked about it, said she was told recall meant “to bring her back into office.” A man said he was told Olga was against the minimum-wage hike.

When I mentioned the “recall means to bring back to office” line to a young woman who'd also talked to some voters, she exclaimed that one had told her the same thing. She wrote me, “[E]very single person wanted to be removed from the petition. It was really upsetting actually, most of the people were very confused and it was clear that they had been given bad information.”

It is frustrating to talk to good people who've been bamboozled and hear them express surprise and anger, then apologize for being taken in. I'd known there was fraud, but not how it permeated the whole recall operation.

This stuff shouldn't happen. (In fact, misrepresenting the purpose or effect of a petition in order to get signatures is a 4th-degree felony under New Mexico law.)

Wednesday a Republican woman complained that these folks had just lied to her. In Gill Sorg's district, they told her they were recalling “Bill” because of the pet-licensing issue. I'm not even sure the pet-licensing issue had been voted on before the recall started.

Who are these people? Apparently some rich businessfolks in the County bankrolled this thing; the Koch Brothers' “Americans for Prosperity” is apparently involved. Its local head, Pam Wolfe, has been working actively on the recall. (Certainly the truth quotient of this operation resembles AFP's in various elections; and the Koch Brothers intensely dislike the minimum wage.) 
Please read carefully what folks ask you to sign. Unless you have strong personal beliefs that your councilor is dishonest or malfeasant, resist helping force the City to spend money on a pointless special election. If you've signed a recall petition in error, or because you were misled, contact me – or write the City Clerk a signed letter with your name and address printed legibly, the date, and your request to have your signature withdrawn or expunged. Including your phone number will help the Clerk confirm that you wrote the letter.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 15 March.]
[Let me make this clear: I'm not suggesting that if you're trying to recall a City Councilor you can't express negative opinions about the person, even if they're both inaccurate and unrelated to the real reason(s) for your recall campaign; but using a complete fairy tale, often without even mentioning that the petition seeks to recall a councilor, is wrong and illegal.  These councilors' support for raising the minimum wage was the triggering event in the recall campaign; and the folks bankrolling it have other complaints, including the Organ Mountains / Desert Peaks National Monument; and it's fair to raise other complaints and opinions.
But these folks have lied from the start.  First, newly-arrived Jeffrey Isbell, sort of a cartoon character hired to run the campaign, alleged that the councilors had misused emails for political purposes. He kept saying "We" were incensed or angry, suggesting the citizens were angry and that he was somehow one of them.  He had no apparent proof -- and likely no reasonable basis at all for his charges.  Yet he kept saying "We've seen documents" that suggest the misuse.  (If he had, he never showed them to the public.)  His pal Pam Wolfe, of AFP, filed an IPRA request for the emails, and eventually got them; but if there were any improper uses of emails, Wolfe and Isbell haven't shown them to us.)
They also alleged that the three councilors were employed by radical organizations.  That's fair as to Nathan: his environmental group is hardly "radical," but they're entitled to their opinions.  But neither Olga Pedroza nor Gill Sorg was employed by any organization other than the City of Las Cruces. 
They also strongly implied that the councilors or certain elderly supporters were intimidating minimum-wage opponents by breaking taillights.  Uhhh, right!
But the goofy charges on their websites are one thing.
Flat-out lying to voters, asking them to sign one thing when the petition says something else, crosses the line.  It's little different from plain fraud: selling me a car by telling me it has a complete new engine and transmission in it when it has no such thing.  Sure, I should look for myself or have a trusted mechanic inspect the thing first; but your lie is still unethical and quite likely illegal.
These folks have mostly sold the recall to voters on grounds unrelated to their real purposes (which is questionable but legal) and on facts that they know or should know are false (which ain't legal), because they know their recall is anything but "grass-roots."
As a fellow said about similar tactics that recall-backer Gary Coppedge was involved in during a controversy in Oregon, "They kept forming astroturf groups."
It's refreshing that most citizens see through the nonsense and that others who erroneously signed a petition are withdrawing their namesBut it's saddening to realize that they presented this thing to so many voters as protecting the PAL Center -- often without even mentioning recall!]
[And the real fault in the recall campaign is that it's unrelated to any kind of malfeasance or corruption, or even any real belief in such, but is a bald-faced effort by rich businessfolk to intimidate the three councilors and any future councilors who might want to vote their consciences, not the Chamber of Commerce's agenda.]

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Protecting the Whistleblower Protection Act

Republican State Rep. Larry Larranaga is trying to destroy one of New Mexico's best laws. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects public employees who speak up regarding crimes and malfeasance by other public officials.

The law protects individual rights, encourages honesty and efficiency in government, and saves us money by allowing public employees expose waste and misconduct. If you have a good-faith belief you've seen such conduct, you can speak up without fear of retaliation. I like that.

Larranaga doesn't.

First of all, he'd take out malfeasance altogether: you could still report an actual crime, but bosses committing non-criminal malfeasance (wasteful, unfair, or dishonest) could keep doing what they're doing.

His other changes would reduce the whistleblower's protection and even intimidate whistleblowers.
He'd limit protection to people who speak to their employer (right!) or the media. Your boss could fire or otherwise punish you for telling a state legislator, a good-government commission, or maybe even your minister.

He'd still let you sue if you got fired or demoted for reporting misconduct to newspapers, but would erase protection against other kinds of punishment. How do you like your new office in the windowless boiler room? You could report something the public should know and get transferred from your office in Santa Fe or Las Cruces to the one in Gallup or Lordsburg. (Your kids will love it there!)

Sorry, Larry, but suspension, demotion, and dismissal aren't the only vicious and effective ways a boss can punish an employee and intimidate others who might want to speak up.

The current law protects you if you reasonably believe, based on the facts available to you, that what you saw was misconduct. Now it wouldn't.

As mentioned, while you could still report crimes, Larry would strike out “malfeasance in public office” and “gross mismanagement, a waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to the public.”

So if I work in the municipal motor pool, and I see that all the sanitation trucks have a flap that flies out when you turn a corner, and could easily hit a pedestrian on the edge of the sidewalk, and my boss refuses to spend the money to repair that, he can fire me for reporting the problem – even if I potentially saved lives. Have you some reason to protect the bad actors among public employees, Larry?

Under Rep. Larranaga's proposal, you couldn't sue for retaliation if reporting the wrongdoing was part of your job duties. A cop vows “to protect and serve” us. If the Chief ordered fellow cops to do something that seemed efficient but actually created a danger, and one officer reported it, the City could argue as a defense that reporting was part of the whistleblower's job duties, because it helped “protect” us. So no special protection for the whistleblower. I think the city should lose that argument; but if I were a cop gambling that the law would protect me for reporting the problem, the new “part of job duties” language could give me serious pause for thought.

The law protects contract employees who report misconduct. It wouldn't if Larry has his way.
Another proposed change would impose an unfair potential financial burden on anyone suing. Others limit damages, by delaying the employee's possible lawsuit while providing that back pay before s/he files suit doesn't count.

Most legislators favor punishing the bad guys – and eliminating waste of public resources.
Whistleblowers help us learn about such situations. There are already plenty of protections against frivolous charges by supposed whistleblowers.

Why do you want to make life so easy for the bad guys, Larry?

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 8 March, 2015.]
[As it's happened, this bill apparently was too far out and poorly crafted that it got tabled, with little hope of seeing daylight again this session.  Good riddance.]
[But the issue could recur in the future.  I gather New Mexico counties were pushing it.  (I read that NMSU President Garry Carruthers spoke out for it, which won't go down as one of his finest moments.  He's smart and experienced, so I'm guessing he didn't realize how badly this bill was written.)  This bill went way too far.  I gather the county's concern was that bad employees on the point of being terminated could misuse it and are misusing it to try to turn a profit when on the way out for legitimate work-related reasons.  
If so, the counties have a legitimate concern -- although sometimes it's hard to tell whether the "on the point of firing" is caused by the whistleblowing or not.  For a future bill, they ought to consult some good lawyers -- perhaps including some who litigate whistleblower cases from the employee's side  --  and craft language that would help address the purported problem without destroying the law.  This year's effort was like the proverbial effort to kill a mosquito on your glass coffee-table with a sledgehammer.]

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Some Ideas on Amending the City Charter

Recent minimum-wage initiative and recall controversies have taught us that Las Cruces needs to amend its City Charter.

The initiative provision requires that when citizens gather sufficient signatures, the City Council must either pass the ordinance as it stands or schedule a referendum. Last fall, the Council did neither. The Councilors ignored the charter, avoiding a popular vote by purporting to adopt the ordinance then changing it significantly.

We need to add teeth to the charter provision. The challenge is to ensure the Council follows the citizens' mandate, while creating flexibility to adjust to changed circumstances or new information. My suggestion: add language confirming that the ordinance becomes law if the citizens vote it in, or the council does, and that it cannot be amended for a significant period of time – say, one year – except by either a citizens' vote or a petition by the Council to district court for permission. The Council would have to show the court a significant change in circumstances or new information. Citizens could oppose the showing. The judge would decide.

More than one year out, the Council could amend the ordinance. Voters could petition to nullify the amendment, but would need fewer signatures than they would if the ordinance had not been petition-initiated.

Some Councilors suggest another change. Because the petition-initiated ordinance is an unwieldy tool, making changes difficult once the petition process starts, they would require petitioners to first try to get the council to pass the desired ordinance. Petitioners unsatisfied by the council's action could then petition as they can now. The process might improve the ultimate petition.

We know the recall process can be seriously and wastefully abused.

The recent recall attempt could never have happened with county officers. State law requires that would-be recallers petition the district court, appear at a hearing, and convince the judge to find probable cause to believe there's malfeasance. Rich crackpots can't make the county waste resources on a special election unless a court agrees there's some basis.

Under the City Charter, you can recall a councilor because you didn't like one vote, or because s/he broke wind too loudly at a council meeting.

These tools – initiative, referendum, and recall, along with direct election of senators – were put in force a century ago during the progressive era, to strengthen the role of common people in our democracy. I hate to weaken them; but witnessing a small group abusing the recall procedure this winter, I kept thinking we needed change. (Fortunately the recallers are failing.)

I wouldn't eliminate the recall procedure. We should be able to recall elected leaders.

One possibility would be a hybrid charter provision that would borrow from state law the requirement of consulting a judge, but wouldn't allow the judge to nix the whole thing. Rather, if the judge agreed there was something more than political foolishness, the group could trigger an election as under the present Charter; but if the judge disagreed, the number of signature required to force an election would rise by, say, 35 to 50%. That is, absent a judge's blessing, you'd need a stronger show of interest from the community.

(A second possibility would be to increase the vote threshold, without involving a judge.)

Finally, we need a practical way to investigate and punish recallers whose operations are as rife with fraud as the current campaign to unseat three councilors. Election fraud is a crime. The Charter should provide that significant fraud can disqualify the whole campaign; and there should be a private right of action, under which voters could bring an action against recallers who commit 4th-degree felonies as freely as these folks did.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, March 1, 2015.  Since writing it, I've already had one lively discussion with a City Councilor who liked some of the above ideas more than he liked others.  At some point soon, I'll make these suggestions in a more specific form, as a way to get the discussion going.]

[I mention the recall campaign.  Since my post the other night, I've been asked a lot of questions on that.  It now appears the City Clerk's Office will take until their deadline, which I think is next Friday, the 6th of March, to report to the City Council.  If, as I expect, the valid, in-district signatures on each petition aren't sufficient to trigger a recall election, the would-be recallers get another 15 days to increase the signatures sufficiently to reach their target numbers.  (I should note that my opinions on this do not come from the City Clerk's Office.  Those folks haven't said anything, or even winked -- and I haven't asked.)  Alternatively, they could just give up gracefully (which ain't too likely) or start some legal process that wouldn't have a chance but might buy them more time and would provide them a platform from which to keep slinging imaginary mud-balls at three good councilors.  I think we should still assume that they'll manage to force a wasteful special election, but the three councilors seem to be quite popular in their districts.]