Sunday, September 27, 2015

Driving down to Chope's on Route 28

Forty-five years ago I first motorcycled down Highway 28 to Chope's, in La Mesa. The food and mood in Chope's were welcoming. The drive was delightful too, a gently-curving country road – with a sudden coolness when the motorcycle passed through irrigated fields, and the pungent scent of onions growing.

Nowadays, we don't make that drive often enough – and not on the motorcycle recently. Together, the drive and Chope's are something special we share with close friends and family when they visit.
Sometimes we pause in Mesilla. Sometimes we just meander down through San Miguel (resolving to attend its next fiesta!) and Stahman farms, mesmerized by the trees flashing by. One of my best-selling images is of those trees in late afternoon, reflected in the surface of the flood-irriagion water. Whatever I may think about water conservation and the arcane rules that govern water rights in New Mexico, those pecan orchards are sometimes extraordinarily beautiful. So are the distant Organs rising up beyond green fields.

Yeah, plenty of houses stand where just fields were; but I'm reassured by how little some of the villages along Route 28 appear to have changed. I'm sure they have changed. Surely faster transportation routes have killed off some local markets and services, as I watched happen up by Garfield and Derry; but the villages seem quiet and familiar, without neon lights or advertising or significant traffic. Sometimes if we are early we simply wander around La Mesa and the area, photographing adobe homes, rusted cars, green fields, and what-not, bathed in the rich light of the setting sun.

Chope's is what a lot of historic restaurants might wish they were, or pretend to be – and perhaps could be if they were still run by family and if their size and locations discouraged expansion. Bigger is not always better. Whether by choice or happenstance, Chope's smaller size not only reinforces the home-like feel of the place but helps maintain the quality of the food. And there's something in being faithful to your origins.

Chope's is a family place. One evening when we were there with my sister and brother-in-law, Cecilia, one of the daughters who runs the place, noticed my camera and hauled me into the big room where the many descendants of Chope's widow Lupe, the matriarch, were celebrating Lupe's 94th or 95th birthday. I was delighted to help, delighted to be a
small part of the event for a moment. The other day when we sat in that room with two old friends, facing the portraits of Chope and Lupe, I recalled her birthday. I also noticed the subtle, mischievous grin on Chope's face, and the warmth of Lupe's eyes.

The food is very, very good. And to my taste. It seems true to the local style, but extremely well done. You also get a lot on your plate. “I suspect about half of this will be going home with us in a box,” our friend Jim said last week, eyeing what seemed a mountainous serving. Quite soon his plate was about as empty as a plate can get. In between we'd talked (in a full room that wasn't too loud), consumed a pitcher of margaritas (never a hindrance to a good evening), and devoured our food. And asked the waitress, for the second time this month, the Spanish for “smothered in” a point that had troubled us ordering chile relleño burritos recently in a small restaurant in Palomas. (Bañado, of course.)

We drove home through dark fields, under a sky is rippled with clouds. Just one more shining moment in a place we love.
On the Road to Chope's
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 27 September.]

[Las Cruces has no shortage of wonderful, small Mexican Restaurants.   Nellie's is one of the oldest; La Ñueva Nueva Casita and Nopalito's are also good, both on Mesquite St..  (One friend swears by the former, and one by the latter, so I get to each regularly.)  One of my strong favorites, a bit different from local tradition but really great, mixing wonderful taste with maybe an extra emphasis on healthy ingredients, is Habañeros.  We loved it when it was in a tiny ex-drive-in spot on Solano, then heard that it had moved; and when we finally got over to the new location one night, we found that it was in a great location that we'd really enjoyed when another restaurant was there, an old house that friends of mine actually lived in forty years ago.  Tornillo between Amador and Lohman.  Great food, friendly chef, and a pleasant place, still divided into several rooms, which somehow enhances the experience.  Habañeros Fresh Mex.]

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Detention Center Investigation Heats Up -- Years Later than it Should Have?

Internal reports suggest that Detention Center Director Chris Barela may be guilty of misuse of public funds, and perhaps of crimes.

I don't pre-judge him. I do ask why it's taken so long for us to reach this point in the investigation, In late 2013, I wrote about these matters and discussed them with law enforcement. At least one Doña Ana County Commissioner also contacted the DA. The State Police began an investigation.

In two different subpoenae, the state police sought internal reports on Barela. Then-County Counsel John Caldwell objected that the reports were protected by attorney-client privilege. By early 2014 some judge should have decided whether or not the privilege protected the documents from the subpoenae – and perhaps whether invoking that privilege was proper when we are arguably the County Counsel's real client.

Lawyers and law professors have written extensively about the question of who is a city or county attorney's client. The mayor or manager? The council or commission? The public? Some combination, depending on circumstances? These can be complex questions. The public nature of the job raises considerations and requires choices that Exxon's in-house counsel doesn't confront.

To me and to many County employees, the County administration seemed dominated by a clique of high-level administrators who watched each other's backs and valued loyalty to the clique above loyalty to the public good. It was widely believed that people the “bosses” trusted could get away with anything, while people they didn't could get fired for trivial or trumped-up reasons. Trials, including Granados (2013) and Stewart (2015), explored the situation. Two different juries heard from both sides and reached very similar conclusions: they were appalled and angered by the portrait of County administration that emerged. (The Slevin jury had something to say about Mr. Barela's management of the detention center.)

Caldwell was central to the alleged clique. Many people said, “Caldwell really runs the County.” Employees and even Commissioners complained that he intimidated them or tried to.

County Manager Julia Brown and County Counsel Nelson Goodin arrived after the events the trials concerned. But they've continued to refuse to hand over certain documents on Barela, despite grand jury subpoenae. (They've also provided some documents, including a CD with a year's worth of purchase orders.) They apparently will provide former auditor Milton Duran's report on Barela by the subpoena deadline for that.

Whoever wins the attorney-client privilege conflict, I'm wondering why we're messing around with these issues at least two years after law enforcement started investigating. Duran's audit was in 2009! (I'm told there was also an even earlier report.) County Commissioners are appalled by the delay – and by the apparent lack of oversight of the Inmate Welfare Fund. Some of these issues were finally aired in a work session Tuesday.

Barela may have committed crimes. If he did, will the statute of limitations run out because the County was stiffing the State Police and/or D.A.'s Office and no one pushed back hard enough? The report I've seen certainly points toward questionable conduct.

The State Police got two subpoenae served seeking the internal reports, but no motion to enforce those was filed. The D.A. says he referred the matter to the State Police, understood there were some problems, indicated that lawyers in his office were available to deal with those problems, then didn't hear further for quite awhile. He and DASO are definitely pushing it now. (There's certainly some intra-governmental tension: some on the investigating side call the attorney-client claim nonsense and one labeled Brown a liar.) I suspect a motion will get filed this week.

Meanwhile the State Auditor reportedly will start investigating in a few months.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 20 September.]

[ I wrote about part of the problem in a December 2013 column and have mentioned it elsewhere.  Issues include alleged use of Aramark employees for non-county work while they were being paid by the County, possible misuse of the inmate welfare fund, and other complaints.]

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Kim Davis Gets Her Ten Minutes

Kim Davis is playing a role scripted by her allies in the Christian Right.

Certain Christians are portraying Christianity as an embattled minority. Christians were one nearly 2000 years ago, but here and now they're the dominant faith. That isn't enough for some, who want not only to practice their religion, but also to force the rest of us to obey it. Will a few decades bring some reprise of the Spanish Inquisition?

Most Christians aren't troubled by freedom of marriage. Many applaud it. But a politically motivated subgroup of Christians needed a martyr. Kim Davis will do till a real one comes along. They promised her huge financial support, making any possible fine a joke and forcing Judge Bunning to jail her.

She rejected Judge Bunning's efforts not to jail her. She could refuse to issue marriage certificates if she simply promised not to interfere with her deputies when they followed the law.

Her legal position is nonsense. She's been elected to perform certain functions, subject to federal and Commonwealth laws and constitutions. She's refusing to follow the law. But for her status as an elected official, she'd already be gone. A long series of cases have defined where an employer must or needn't accommodate religious beliefs, and her conduct is on the wrong side of the line. Davis isn't being forced to do anything. She seeks to use her office to keep others from following the law.

We're a pluralistic nation. Our founders wisely took great pains to keep religious belief out of governmental decision-making. We cannot now be blackmailed into letting a small minority of Christians (and a smaller minority of U.S. citizens) dictate our laws.

Her moral position is nonsense. If I'm Muslim or Orthodox Jew, and can't eat pork, does that give me the right to keep everyone in a school cafeteria from eating pork? If my faith forbids women to drive, could I fairly deny all the women in Doña Ana County driver's licenses? If I worked for the City, could I refuse to give a building permit to a Wiccan church because my pastor called it devil-worship? If I were President Huckabee, could I order the Department of Education to refuse to fund schools that taught evolution, not creationism?

If history recalls Kim Davis at all, it will recall her as we recall the 1926 Scopes trial. Contemporary observers thought that spectacle a national embarrassment. Tennessee courts upheld Scopes's conviction for teaching evolution, which the state had forbidden. Society (mostly) moved on.

The self-righteousness of Davis and her supporters is barf-worthy. Someone called her a modern-day Rosa Parks, the black lady whose insistence on sitting in the white section of a city bus got her jailed but helped change the nation. She's no Rosa Parks. Rather, Davis is the bus driver who called the police because a Negress was getting out of line.

You could fairly ask why I criticize Davis but strongly supported County Clerk Lynn Ellins when he started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples when that was not yet clearly legal. His action expanded rather than contracted personal freedoms and equality. He disobeyed no Supreme Court decision. Further, his interpretation of the U.S. Constitution accurately anticipated the Supreme Court's eventual interpretation.

Earlier in life, I sometimes placed my sense of right and wrong above the law, as Davis has done. But she and I are on opposite sides of a drawn-out conflict. I'm on the side of equality, tolerance, open-mindedness, and personal freedoms. Davis wants to impose her views on others. And have her ten minutes of fame.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 13 September.]

[Kim Davis will be soon forgotten.  The rapidity with which we've moved from "homosexuality is illegal and disgusting" to "gay marriage is beautiful" will provoke plenty of thought and discussion among future historians, if we don't destroy civilization too soon.  I think they'll find little controversy in the issue, as acceptance of various sorts of sexuality, like acceptance of various skin colors, will be the norm.  However, the rapidity of the change will provoke their curiosity.
The serious issue here is the political movement to turn the religion-neutral government our founders conceived and implemented into an arm of Protestant Christianity.  That movement will fail; its adherents are not only a small minority, but a dwindling one, ultimately.  But it's a significant part of the political landscape in 2015.  It's wrong-headed -- both in misunderstanding the nature of our government and in choosing the wrong elements of Christianity (strict rules and intolerance rather than love and tolerance and compassion) to yammer for.]
[Kim Davis is a sideshow; but the ostrich-like tendency of some citizens to hide their heads in some religious sand [Christian, Islamic, or some other] to avoid scientific realities, as it appears in other political issues, is dangerous to our future Faith is wonderful, and can be inspiring; but used as a weapon against others or a justification for intolerance or an excuse not to face reality, it's sad.]

Friday, September 11, 2015

Friday Round Up - 11 September

[This post discusses September 11th, the NM Public Education Department's law-breaking, the freeing of a bull snake, and the Senate action regarding the deal with Iran.]

A Sad Anniversary
11 September? On this day I was in the Library of Congress, researching life in 1914 for a piece of fiction I was working on.  It was still morning when someone announced the library was closing, without really giving a reason.

Of course it turned out that the Twin Towers had been destroyed and another plane had crashed into the Pentagon.  But for the quick-acting heroes on a fourth flight, the White House or Congress would have been hit -- and I'd have heard the impact and smelled the fumes.

I motorcycled home.  Traffic out of that part of DC was so thick that if I'd had a car rather than a motorcycle I'd probably still be there.

DC felt like a war zone, with all the helicopters flying around.  At supper that night on a rooftop cafe, as I recall we could still see some flames at the Pentagon.

Early the next morning I went to shoot photographs.  It was still dark.  There were few cars on the street.  I had to park several hundred yards from the Lincoln Memorial because of all the military and police guarding it.  I walked past them and, very shortly after dawn I shot a photograph one could only have shot that morning, because of the tourists and joggers and others who'd have been all over those stairs any normal morning.  But this guy was at work.  No one saw him but me and dozens of troops.

Punishing the P.E.D.  -- and Us!
On Wednesday, First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton rejected an effort by the Public Education Department to avoid paying $14,000 in legal fees for PED's failure to comply with the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.
This was the case in which Plaintiff National Education Association (New Mexico) sought documentary support for Education Secretary Hanna Skandera that the teacher evaluation system put in place during the Richardson Administration had failed because it determined that more than 99% of all teachers were proficient.   PED stalled on NEA's IPRA request for nine months or so, then conceded it didn't have the "studies" Skandera claimed to have rlied upon.
“What I believe is that you have a very important statement that has been made, and you really have no basis that you can document for that statement," Singleton stated in her ruling.  The agency was also fined $485.
NEA-NM President Betty Patterson commented, “If the Public Education Department had been as transparent as the Governor claims her administration is, not one penny of legal fees would be required.   If they were transparent, none of this would be necessary.”

PED spokesman Robert McEntyre tried to spin the ruling to blame the NEA for his department's misconduct: 'Today’s ruling shows that these special interests would rather have more money spent in courtrooms than in our classrooms, where it belongs.' .  That is, it's your fault we broke the law.  If you hadn't demanded we follow the law, we wouldn't have spent this $14,000 in public money trying to bullshit the public.
The PED under Martinez-appointee Skandera has been somewhat disastrous. 

KRWG's Story on this is here.
The Sun-News story on this is here.

We the public don't want to pay for keeping things secret that ought to be public. My next Sun-News column (not the one coming out in two days, but the one I'll write next week) will likely cover a situation where the County Manager tried to stonewall the DA and DASO, and the State Police, regarding reports on alleged misconduct by Detention Center director Chris Barela.  The alleged misconduct was known well before my column on the subject.  It's amazing to recognize that I wrote that column December 13, 2013, that the problem was also reported to law enforcement at least by then, and that as of Wednesday law enforcement was still trying to pry loose reports detailing the alleged misconduct -- at least one of which included summaries of interviews with witnesses.  Thanks again to former County Counsel John Caldwell for fighting the grand jury on this, opining that the reports were protected by the attorney-client privilege.  I wonder how much attorney time we've spent (or will spend: I don't yet know whether the County met a deadline yesterday and turned over copies of the reports) having two public agencies fight each other over this.

Freeing the Snake
When D stopped to see an 84-year-old friend, the glue traps someone had talked her into using for mice had trapped a very nice bull snake.   He was so well-attached to the glue paper, at his head and several other spots, that he couldn't escape -- and he'd been there awhile.   His situation looked grim; but D researched the problem on line, and late Wednesday night we used saffron oil to free him.   She painted it lightly on the spots where he was attached, while I held the paper.   He was a little worried, but may have realized the process was freeing him.  He didn't try to bite, anyway.   We'd put him into a plastic bucket deep enough that perhaps he wouldn't escape in our garage, but once he got sufficiently free he reared up and climbed onto a shelf and hid.
Three observations:
1. these glue traps have a downside -- but it is possible to free wildlife from them when the wrong beasts get trapped;
2. if I didn't already love this woman who will run out in the evening to bring back a bull snake and spend an hour freeing it, I'd fall in love with her just for that; and
3. if you're freeing a snake from a trap, do it outside or at least go outside when the job's nearly completed.  Next day I left the cat door open from 5 a.m. to about 4 p.m., hoping the bull snake would exit, and I hope he has.

Iran Deal Update
The Congressional effort to derail the Iran deal seems futile  and self-defeating.  Opponents' refrain is that Iran will have the opportunity to build nuclear weapons in ten or fifteen years under the deal; but Iran will have that opportunity this year, without the deal.   Bottom line: if Iran gets close to having nuclear weapons, we'll either have to accept that or try a military solution our generals strongly oppose.  This deal offers some hope that Iran will abandon that effort over time.  As far as I can tell, from a lot of reading, the inspection system should be adequate.  Certainly the deal enhances inspection capabilities over what they are now!  Past counselors to Republican Presidents, such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and ____ Gergen (advisor to about four Presidents, and quoted in my column on the subject), say the deal is the best option we have right now.  The deal could possibly prevent or at least significantly delay something worse than the deal.  I do not hear the opponents explaining in any detail what they'd do as an alternative: re-imposing sanctions ain't gonna work because we'd be doing it alone, without the rest of the developed world; and the real alternative, preemptive war, they haven't the political gumption to advocate. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Where Love Abides -- J. Paul Taylor Is 95!

[I prepared this as a Sunday newspaper column but breaking stories took precedence.  The photographs were shot on Sunday, 23 August at the celebration held by the Friends of the Taylor Monument.]

My friend J. Paul is 95.

He is surrounded by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – and on the table a photograph of his beautiful wife, in younger days. He sowed love and concern in their childhoods and is still reaping love and respect.

Another old friend of mine is 74. He idolizes J. Paul, who taught him as a schoolboy. At a book-signing party a few years ago, in the Mesilla Plaza, I watched generations of former pupils come up to shake Paul's hand. Amazingly, he recognized them. 

J. Paul is a gentleman. He is smart, funny, and sweet-natured; but when he stands up for what he believes, he has a spine of steel. As he finished a very full career in education, someone talked him into running for the State Legislature. He resisted initially, then ran, and spent nearly two decades speaking the truth as he saw it so clearly that members of both parties called him “The Conscience of the Legislature.”

Now, as Paul speaks, the Organs are visible through the window behind him. I remember listening when he spoke briefly at an outdoor press conference of Hispanic leaders calling for support for the Monument proposal. The nearby Robledos Mountains, part of the proposed monument, were named for an ancestor of J. Paul's. Tonight a state official reads a tribute birthday letter to Paul signed by Mr. and Mrs. Obama.

Paul was brought up in the country, south of here. After WWII, he and Mary bought an old house in Mesilla. Mesilla was nothing fancy then, just a village. J. Paul was working for NMSU. Anglo co-workers visited the house and warned him that his children would be brought up among Mexicans. Paul politely pointed out that he had been brought up in just such an environment.

The mariachi who sings “Happy Birthday” mentions singing also for Lupe Benavidez's 95th birthday. She is the matriarch of the family that owns Chope's. I recall photographing one of her birthdays. I was eating supper, and one of her daughters drafted me. I was delighted to serve.

Some folks have a quality of time and culture I respect. Their generations intertwine like vines, growing thick and strong with the decades. They did not arrive last year from Michigan.

The room is full of Paul's family and friends. Many are my friends too. I photograph a man in
his seventies, kissing his infant granddaughter, and see the 28-year-old professor he was in 1969 who held his fiction-writing class out in the Corbett Center lobby because classrooms were too dull. I greet a retired judge whom I have not seen for forty years by apologizing for what I wrote about him in the newspaper back then. (He reminds me that trial lawyers develop thick skins.)

Watching the genuine joy and affection with which Paul greets all these people from so many moments in his long life, I remember his reunion at that book-signing with a schoolmate who now lived in Hatch. They hadn't seen each other in years. With neither able to drive, they might not get to talk again soon – or ever. I do not see him tonight, and wonder whether they will meet again.

Paul combines love of history with openness to new ideas; Catholic faith with progressive politics; and the wisdom of age with youth-like joy.

Paul's beautiful house in Mesilla is a state monument that will teach generations of children and tourists something of what life was like in a vanished time and place.

One of Paul's daughters said that what mattered most in that house was “the love that abided there.” I see it in Paul's eyes.

J. Paul contemplates J. Paul

Mark contemplates his granddaughter

J. Paul and Cynthia Garrett, with J. Paul

Images of a loving couple

Honors: a letter from the Obamas -- and the bust.

Someone's gonna get a piece of cake --

-- and someone has other refreshments in mind.

Looks like a serious discussion

He clearly had fun.

He didn't get any cake.

And he damned sure didn't!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

County Commission Acts on Transit -- Consistently with Voters' Wishes

I've heard complaints that the County Commission has somehow betrayed its constituents by approving funds for mass transit; but whoever's complaining may not understand the county's action or the concept of representative democracy – or doesn't want to understand.

Although many of us have cars, many do not. Poverty, age, illness, or disability prevents them from driving into town, to shop or even for medical appointments. That can be a major problem for folks in rural areas.

Last November, voters rejected a proposal to raise the GRT to provide $10 million annually to fund a special transit district.

Many folks agreed something should be done about transit, but thought $10 million was a lot to ante up when the extent of the problem wasn't fully clear. They voted “No” because they didn't think the buses would get used enough to warrant such an outlay, but they recognized there was a need. Many suggested that a scaled-down service with smaller buses and fewer routes, targeted to meet specific needs, would help show the size and nature of the actual demand.

I heard and read enough statements from people, some old or ill or handicapped, to feel convinced there's a need. At the same time, I had doubts about the scope of the project as proposed. But those were doubts about the size of the market or certain assumptions by the organizers, not about the basic need.

I don't know how fully the organizers polled the business community ahead of time. While businesses would tend to oppose a GRT increase, they should welcome an affordable mechanism that enables more potential customers to get into Las Cruces. They might also have had insights into running the thing in a reasonably businesslike fashion.

Most of the opposition I heard (including a Sun-News editorial) was to the project's scope and total cost, not to the basic idea.

The Commission heard the voters loud and clear, and neither revived the $10 million proposal nor ignored the need for buses. Commissioners approved using $750,000 on a scaled down project. That is, they're spending less than ten per cent of the amount the voters rejected.

Far from ignoring the citizens the County Commission would seem to be listening to all the citizens, those opposed to taxes and those in need of services, and making a reasonable compromise.
Which is an important tool in government.

We live in a representative democracy. Not ancient Athens, where the entire male population of Athens could serve as the jury in Socrates's trial and decide his punishment. Not a Vermont Town Hall, where the entire population of East Pancake can vote on how much to spend on the volunteer fire department.

So we elect representatives who are tasked with studying matters in detail, folks we believe are qualified by some combination of wisdom, experience, political views, personality, intelligence, diligence, etc. to make reasonably sound decisions that generally represent what most of us think, or what most of us would approve if we knew all that our representatives have taken the time to learn. There's no promise that each of us will agree with our representatives' votes on each specific issue.

The Founding Fathers envisioned us electing such representatives based on some combination of prudence, good judgment, smarts, honesty, and loyalty that made them sensible stand-ins for their constituents – not because we agreed with them on a particular issue. Or were of the same Party. The Founders didn't really contemplate these huge political parties.

What the County Commission did seems sensible; it reasonably addresses a known need; and it probably followed the will of a large segment of County voters.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 6 September and will appear on the KRWG-TV website later todayThe Sun-News headline was "County Commission Listens to All Voters" -- which is fine, and close enough to what I'm saying on this issue in this column, but sounds a little more purely positive than I feel about our county government.   I think we have a basically good set of commissioners who have intelligence and skills, and a lot of diligence, and are working hard to solve an abundance of problems in the best ways for all of us.  They're trying to do the right things, and often do.  At the same time, there are critical problems: the Detention Center; discordance between the County Sheriff and other parts of county management; the problems discussed in my earlier columns regarding the Kim Stewart case -- and probably to be discussed a little further in my next column or the one after.  I have grave doubts about the failure to settle the Kim Stewart case; about another case wending its way toward trial; about the Human Resources Department; and about whether County Manager Julia Brown will fulfill her early promise or is sliding into some of the same patterns and problems her predecessors had, and ultimately toward a messy dismissal.]