Sunday, January 17, 2016

Intra-County Squabbles Diminish Credibility -- and County Treasury

County officials should get out of our adversarial legal system and talk honestly. 

Neither side has everything right. There have been honest misunderstandings/disagreements, but each side accuses the other of grandstanding – and using litigation to divert attention from real issues.

The Sheriff should dismiss his lawsuit against two commissioners. I sympathize with some of his frustrations, but this lawsuit isn't the best course of action. He has little chance of winning. (See my blog for details.) 

The County Manager should dismiss her suit against the Sheriff over his seizing the detention center the day jailer Chris Barela was arrested. The Sheriff claimed: that (1) the jail was a crime scene, and other county officials were “persons of interest” and (2) prisoners might riot upon hearing of alleged misuse of their inmate welfare fund, and Barela allegedly hadn't set up viable safeguards to run the place without him. The Sheriff said his presence would be temporary. He also stated that he had legal authority to do what he was doing.

The County Manager sought an emergency court order ex parte (without the other side's presence). That's legal; but why didn't the County Attorney call the Sheriff a half-hour before the hearing to alert him to be there? Why didn't Judge Manuel Arrieta insist on that, or have his clerk call DASO? Arrieta did request an affidavit from the County Attorney; but the purported notice was rather lame. (See blog for details.)

The Sheriff was reachable. Having him present his side of things would have given the court a fuller picture. (Arrieta did weaken the County's proposed order.) 

On the merits, maybe Vigil was right, maybe not, and maybe, as Arrieta apparently felt, Vigil was overstepping his authority but had some legitimate concerns that the County's draft of the order would have threatened.

Either way, it's over. Who was right holds some interest, but nothing worth paying two sets of attorneys and a judge to fuss over. 

The lawsuit sought injunctive relief, which everyone agrees is moot because the Sheriff left the jail. It also sought a declaration that the Sheriff was wrong. Take egos out of it, and that's moot too. (The Sheriff is extremely unlikely to repeat his actions.)

Both sides should agree, quickly and cheaply, to dismiss the case without prejudice, conditioned on an agreement that if Sheriff Vigil ever thinks circumstances warrant such action, he'll notify the County and the two sides will expeditiously consult a judge before action is taken. Neither side need admit anything. DASO sources suggest the Sheriff would agree. The County Manager should too, although one commissioner stressed they had no clear idea what the Sheriff might do and would feel more comfortable getting judicial guidance now. (Maybe Judge Arrieta should appoint me as a mediator.)

We face real issues. The Sheriff should play better with his peers. Other county officials should realize that some officials (including a former county attorney and perhaps present or former county manager) are honestly viewed as “persons of interest” in the jail investigation. The Sheriff should recognize that other officials are by no stretch of the imagination suspect. The investigation should proceed. (In a perfect world, someone who hadn't been at odds with the County Manager so loudly and so often would investigate; but at least the investigation is being done. The District Attorney, and ultimately judge or jury, will make the ultimate decisions.) 

Tuesday's County Commission meeting revealed that the two sides had discussed one issue and cleared up honest misunderstandings. Each side had made mistakes. They solved the problem together. Let's hope they continue rebuilding trust.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 17 January (under "Opinion" and will appear on the KRWG-TV website later this morning (News-->Local Viewpoints).  As I worked on this column, I quickly recognized that if I filled in details regarding the two lawsuits mentioned, I'd hardly have room to say much more.  Therefore I'm posting additional material regarding Sheriff Enrique Vigil's lawsuit against Commissioners Billy Garrett and Wayne Hancock, see the separate pose on that by clicking here or just paging down to it.  (It was published yesterday, and includes a transcription of the employee complaint that sparked the recent investigation of the Sheriff, which found nothing significant but upped the tension levels.)  I planned a second to discuss County Manager Julia Brown's suit against the Sheriff.  I haven't posted that yet, but will try to get it up here later this morning.   And again, this column and the supplemental post(s) contain my opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Sun-News or KRWG.]

 [In addition, though, it was encouraging to here at Tuesday's commission meeting that in a couple of meetings (apparently initiated by Commissioner Leticia Benavidez) top staff both at DASo and the County Administration discussed the recent issue concerning computers for new DASO vehicles and resolved it.   Folks on both sides said they'd learned from the sessions.  From both sides, I'd heard expressions of anger and frustration, and beliefs that the other side was consciously being obstreperous or uncooperative.  I've hoped some of that has been miscommunication.  Thus the recent rapprochement is somewhat encouraging.
Dropping all these lawsuits and having a frank but courteous discussion at the highest level would be a great next step.]


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