Sunday, May 1, 2016

More Fireworks between County and County Sheriff

Tuesday was a long, difficult day, and hard to write about.

A county-hired consultant reported to the commission on why the sheriff's office has adequate numbers of personnel. Then a long parade of DASO personnel passionately disagreed. Later, DASO top brass attacked the study at a press conference. 

Sheriff calls consultant a hatchet-man, County says consultant is the best in the business – and authored a Department of Justice staffing document the Sheriff had relied on earlier. Consultant says 12-hour shifts are better than 10, Sheriff cites a study showing 10 is better than 12; consultant says 20,000 calls per year, DASO says 100,000. 

Who's right? Ask me after I investigate further.

More important: what's going on in this long-running dispute? 

Sheriff's deputies are angry. No raises for years – while a county-hired consultant working with the human resources department recommended raises for HR employees. (The raiselessness arose partly from the deputies' union's decision to focus on other issues.) Watching officers young and old leave for better-paying law-enforcement jobs. Working with old equipment. Deputy Ken Roberts demonstrated Tuesday how deputies often have to hold a radio as high as possible to make it work. 

The county administration is frustrated. I like Kiki Vigil, but sometimes his manner magnifies problems. Yesterday he stood up and loudly called Commissioner Billy Garrett a liar. (I looked into it, and found no lying. As usual, there were two differing interpretations of an ambiguous situation. Both Billy's view and Kiki's were honest, I think.)

Recently, using an outside vendor to repair cars, Sheriff Vigil exceeded the approved $10,000, and even the $50,000 the county manager had authority to approve. The commission was asked to approve all this after the fact, and declined. A law-enforcement official who dislikes both sheriff and commissioners told me a while back that the sheriff exceeded other budgets; and a commissioner privately confirmed that.

The sheriff says he's walking the streets in support of challengers for commission seats. He may not realize that some voters find it intimidating that a man with a gun is visiting to tell them how to vote. What also isn't clear is which came first: did his frustration with the county government lead the Sheriff to seek change, or did political considerations lead him to make honest differences more vitriolic than they needed to be?

Tuesday, most DASO personnel spoke pretty angrily to the commission. Mostly, the commissioners took it, with good grace. 

Garrett gave a long, heartfelt response, and made some good points, including a 25% increase in DASO's budget; but I cringed at his reaction to criticism that commissioners haven't ridden along with deputies: “Maybe I should do it, for the optics. But our job is making policy here,” was a troubling answer, from an otherwise great commissioner. 

It was hard to watch DASO officers bash commissioners for an hour. I know good people on both sides. Under the previous sheriff, some bad things happened to these officers. A few talked to me, and I wrote about it, despite threats to them and to me. I respect and like those officers. I've also talked at length with the commissioners. I respect and like them. We're lucky to have them serving – even if we don't agree on every issue. 

I'm not on any side. I'm telling friends at DASO that certain commissioners are trying really hard to be excellent public servants, and are doing a lot of good. And I'm telling friends on the commission that many of those deputies were yelling from honest frustration, not mean-spiritedness. A ride-along could only enhance understanding.

 [The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 1 May, and on the Sun-News website, and will be up shortly on the KRWG-TV website as well.   ]

[Let me make one thing clear: based on the past few years, I'd vote for the re-election of Wayne Hancock or Dr. David Garcia if I lived in their districts.  I say that despite having criticized the county administration on certain issues, notably the sluggishness with which county manager appears to have dealt with personnel issues and the concern among some county employees that despite her initial promise she's become part of the problem.  First of all, that isn't the only issue facing the commission.  There are many others, some of them complex.  These two men have brought integrity and experience to the table and have tried to deal with issues fairly and with good judgment.  By and large, they've done well.  And I trust them both.  Once you get past the slogans and sound-bites, they're both working hard to represent us well.]

[I do hope to look further into the staffing issue.  And other issues involving the sheriff's office and the county administration.   On the staffing issue, factual disputes such as the number of calls annually, as well as continuing discussions such as whether 10-hour or 12-hour shifts are best, should be easy to look into.
I disagree with the sheriff's side that the county commission had no business looking into the staffing issue: the commission had budget oversight and an HR department, the sheriff has made serious allegations about staffing levels, and the commission had every right to look into that.
But I wish the two sides could have agreed on a consultant and cooperated.  Under the circumstances (an ongoing civil war between sheriff on the one side and county manager and HR director on the other) there was every danger that hiring Mr. Weiss would look like an attack in that political civil war.  The commission did try for some cooperation, inviting District Attorney Mark D'Antonio to broach the subject with Mr. Vigil, and there was some discussion, but it isn't completely clear why that never bore fruit.  (I think the sheriff should have cooperated anyway; but I understand the feeling that it was a put-up job.)    
Aspects of the report and its presentation by the consultant did feel a little like watching an expert witness on one side in a trial -- someone who knows the field, but is clearly testifying on behalf of one side in a dispute.  I'll follow up by trying to ask the consultant, but his discussion of 9-1-1 calls is an example: the law (and logic) requires investigation of calls on which someone immediately hangs up, and  he seemed to be suggesting there were ways to cut down on those.  He recounted a situation in another town where 10% of the 9-1-1 calls turned out to be from a single hotel where people were trying to dial 9 then an outside number; but in a town this size, I gotta think someone would have figured that out if it were happening here.]
[Personal note: soon after I moved here, someone beat up someone else in the house I'd lived in in California; with my California cell-phone, I quickly dialed 9-1-1 -- then realized that of course the cell-phone would connect me with the jurisdiction I was physically in, not the one in the cell-phone's area code; so I hung up quickly, or explained to the person who answered what had happened.  About ten minutes later a DASO deputy showed up.  When my wife explained, he still politely insisted on coming inside to where I was and talking directly to me.  Otherwise, how would he know we weren't being held at gunpoint?]

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