Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Takes on the 2016 Races for County Clerk and County Treasurer

The Doña Ana County Clerk and Treasurer races each present an obvious choice – the Democrat and the Republican, respectively. 

Deputy County Clerk Scott Krahling faces Maria Rodriguez. Deputy County Treasurer Eric Rodriguez faces former treasurer's office employee Jill Johnson. 

In each race the deputy's history is adequate grounds for decision. 

Mr. Krahling is a competent and enthusiastic deputy to Clerk Lynn Ellins. He's worked to ensure honest and relatively smooth elections. He also personally initiated a non-partisan task force to audit office procedures and make recommendations to the NM Secretary of State to enhance protection of personal data in the state system. Then he initiated a non-partisan “get out the vote” committee, headed by a noted Republican who had run against Ellins four years ago.

Eric Rodriguez was appointed deputy in January, after Treasurer David Gutierrez fired Deputy Clerk Rene Barba for refusing to promise that, if elected, he would appoint Gutierrez his deputy. That cost the County $$ to settle Barba's lawsuit. Barba had also refused to cover up Gutierrez's sexual misconduct: Gutierrez sexually harassed an employee, and the County shelled out, again, to settle her lawsuit.

Gutierrez's conduct would be a crime in most states. His refusal to resign insults all of us. Appointing Rodriguez suggests maybe Rodriguez made the promise Barba refused to make. No way you and I should keep paying Gutierrez. Rodriguez has not denied with sufficient certainty that he'd hire Gutierrez. That removes him from consideration. Absolutely.

Jill Johnson brings highly pertinent experience to the race for treasurer. She was an internal auditor with the County and worked in the treasurer's office. (Her whistleblower lawsuit was a third settlement Gutierrez cost us!)

Johnson spent 25 years with Caterpillar, in accounting and audit-related positions. At Caterpillar and at the County, she has consistently pushed for common-sense innovations. She improved the efficiency of the Treasurer's Office by working closely with IT to coordinate reports. She also made it possible for citizens to use debit or credit cards to pay. If elected, she'd work to enable monthly payments.

Eric Rodriguez is a charming young man. He was a bank teller and loan officer. If he had sworn never even to consider Gutierrez as a possible deputy, this race might be a tougher call, although Johnson would still have the edge in experience; but he didn't. He and Gutierrez were photographed putting up signs together during the primary. How much more might Gutierrez cost us in attorney fees, settlements, and abused female employees? 

A long-time paralegal, Maria Rodriguez has been appointed magistrate and administrative law judge. She seems a good person. A friend speaks highly of her paralegal work.

But her lack of experience in the clerk's office is troubling. She knows more than most citizens, but lacked real answers to several questions. She said New Mexico has a law requiring everyone to carry ID. I couldn't find it. She seems to favor requiring voters to have picture IDs, even though it might disenfranchise some people and voter fraud is as rare as unicorns. Her main campaign point is that an employee misused the state voter records system to copy personal information to commit a crime. That happened – facilitated by state records containing full social security numbers. I've seen no evidence the Clerk was careless. Krahling's response has been exemplary.

The next clerk takes office January 1, with a school board election February 7. Why trade Krahling's extensive experience and good ideas for someone who'd have to learn on the job?

Krahling sets a high standard that Ms. Rodriguez can't meet. Rodriguez (with Gutierrez looming behind him) sets a low bar Johnson clears easily.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 25 September 2016, as well as on the newspaper's website and on the KRWG-TV website.]

[Couple of further notes from right after I sent the column in to the newspaper.  First, at Thursday's PVA session Eric Rodriguez said he will not appoint David Gutierrez to any position in the County Clerk's Office.  Second, I took a look at the recent John Birch Society event here, which is worth a column of its own, and found that Maria Rodriguez and her husband were listed among the generous supporters.]  

[Eric Rodriguez didn't mention Gutierrez's sexual misconduct or the three settlements Gutierrez cost us; Gutierrez is, after all, Rodriguez's mentor; but Rodriguez did assert unambiguously that if he became County Treasurer he'd not hire Gutierrez.  He seems a good kid.  I wish him well.  But for this race this year, Johnson -- though I disagree with her on a lot of political issues, vigorously -- still seems the better bet for the office, based on the breadth of her experience.

[The John Birch event was billed as "Support your Local Police" but was a front for the old right-wing hate group.  (Forty years ago, JBS opposed equal rights for blacks, and integration.)
The event had nothing to do with supporting police officers in any meaningful sense.  Rather, it concerned the JBS's paranoid fantasy that the feds are trying to do away with local and state police and have a federal police force.  (JBS asserts that a current program to fund further training of police is a sly step toward absolute federal control.)  The group also said Communists were behind the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations -- just as the group used to say the civil rights movement, aimed at integration and voting rights in the U.S. in the '60's, was Communist.   I was in that one.  It was a mostly bunch of good-hearted young people appropriately pissed off at racism and segregation and hoping to change things.  Communism was irrelevant.  It's even more irrelevant now, when it's been pretty much discredited everywhere.  But this hate group still wants to put everyone who disagrees with it in the "Communist" box so as to avoid actually confronting sometimes difficult questions.
Invitations to the event here a couple of weeks ago listed "sponsors" and "supporters" of whom some had no clue the thing was a JBS event.  (My friend and former client Earl Nissen says he has contacted several of these folks, and that so far two of the six "sponsors have said they had no intention of supporting JBS.  So have several "generous supporters."]  
[Naturally I asked Maria Rodriguez about her support of JBS.  She responded that she had no idea who John Birch was.  I told her, and told her a little about the group.  She said she just sought to get her name out there, since she's running for office.  I urged her to take a look at the JBS and let me know whether it's a group she supports or would disclaim any interest in.  She called back, still not knowing much about JBS, and said she hadn't intended to endorse any group.  Apparently JBS suckered her, as it did the others. I believe she had no intention of supporting JBS.  
[More generally, I'm curious who among the "sponsors" really supports the group and who doesn't.   I'm betting most of our local businesses and individuals are more decent than that, and were gulled into helping JBS because they felt, as most of just do, that police officers need support right now.  Personally, I think it's possible to support police officers, and try to help them, without being racist -- as it is to support better treatment of blacks without buying the idea that all police officers are racist.  They are not.]

[Ms. Rodriguez also elaborated on her view that people should vote for her because of the identity theft committed by employees in the clerk's office.  It did indeed happen while Mr. Ellins and Mr. Krahling were running the office.  However, the vulnerability and temptation were created by a statewide way of handling such information; no one has pointed me to any evidence of particular laxness by Mr. Krahling, let alone any involvement; and Ellins and Krahling acted definitely and appropriately in responding to the problem.] 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Let's Listen to Each Other!

Too many people treat politics and government like a football game.

My team is my team no matter what. So what if the tight end attacked a 90-year-old man? They're the 'Niners, man.

Politics oughtta be different. Local politics above all. We're neighbors. But some people see everything in black and white. Or red and blue. 

Someone on Facebook called Julia Brown “the worst county manager ever.” I disagreed. I've criticized her in columns, but she's smart, and I suspect she's hard-working. (I lack enough first-hand information to decide how I'd vote on extending her contract; but with the imminent change of commissioners, a three-year extension doesn't seem wise. An outgoing school board did that with Stan Rounds, which upped the cost to the public when the next board told Rounds to take a hike.)

When I replied that Brown definitely wasn't “the worst county manager ever,” someone said I was in favor of her because we both went to PVA meetings (I usually do. She was there once or twice to announce something.), and that I believed everything Billy Garrett told me.

I like and respect Billy Garrett. He's a smart guy, knows a lot about local government, and works incredibly hard as county commissioner. But I've disagreed with him strongly and publicly. 

Commissioner Ben Rawson's political views differ strongly from mine. I didn't vote for him. I'm appalled by some of what he says, and how he says it, but he appears to listen to his constituents. 

Barack Obama seems a smart and caring fellow with an astonishingly good temperament for the Presidency; but I've disagreed strongly with him on many issues, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and thought he relied too much on Wall Street types for advice on repairing our economy. I like that he's tried to avoid the pitfall of prejudging every foreign-policy situation based on ideology or a personal agenda; but recognize that such an approach can slip into uncertainty and lack of direction.

We're all imperfect. We're human. I try to listen to everyone with an open mind and make up my mind based on evidence. I still get things wrong sometimes.

Of course, some politicians make this hard. Reading Steve Pearce's recent op-ed about Rick Riscoria acting heroically in the World Trade Center fifteen years ago, I thought “I actually agree with Pearce about something!” Unfortunately, he segued into a partisan and misleading rant claiming that Obama created ISIS. Does he really not remember that the Bush administration lied about Iraq to start a war – and Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle, who should have known better, went along happily? I was disappointed, but not surprised, that instead of mourning our dead, Pearce turned a solemn subject into a dishonest bit of self-promotion.

And the temper of the times disfavors thoughtfulness. If you advocate better understanding between police and the communities they serve, you're labeled a cop-hater – even if you have friends in law enforcement and work with law enforcement officers every week. (Count me as one who thought it stupid and tasteless for Hillary to say that Donald's supporters were “deplorables.” Preferring Clinton to Trump doesn't require me to agree with all she says.)

I wish the paper could print this column without my name. Maybe we should read all newspaper columns without knowing who wrote them until we've finished reading. If we read the words, and assess the words, rather than spotting someone's name and going into attack mode, maybe we'd find some middle ground.

Think of it as working together to keep the stadium from falling down on both teams.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News and possibly other newspapers this morning, Sunday, 18 September, and on the newspaper's website (where someone has already advised me that I am a pathetic columnist who is destroying the county) as well as KRWG-TV's website.]

[None of the above means I don't plan to vote for Hillary Clinton, don't think Donald Trump poses a unique threat to our democracy, or don't hold to values that tend to emphasize social concerns over pure capitalism, freedom over conformity or repression, as well as candor, openness in government, and the like.  I just get uncomfortable dismissing whole groups of people, or ignoring them.  I actually believe in free speech as central to our democracy, and in free, fair, and open discussion of ideas as a way to get to truths which may not be quite what anyone thought they were before the discussion.] 

[Locally, we cannot afford to let differing political opinions become feuds.  Doesn't mean we shouldn't each fight for what we believe is right.  I sure do.  But why should someone's unappetizing beliefs blind me to the good that person does or the laughs we have in the midst of disagreeing -- or the fact that I may learn something from him or her?  That's why I found the duplicitous municipal recall effort so unfortunate.  It crossed some line between disagreeing on facts and courses and used flat-out lies and vicious tactics.  I feel the same about "attack ads" that try to win election by last-minute false and scurrilous newspaper ads.  But I still can't afford not to take my best shot at civil discourse with the people responsible for those.
I've seen a couple of recent examples of folks from different places on the political spectrum working together: after an employee in the County Clerk's Office committed crimes, Deputy City Clerk Scott Krahling reached out to Russell Allen and other Republicans to participate in a committee to look at procedures in the office and see whether additional safeguards might be usefully implemented; and a similar bipartisan committee has worked on getting out the vote.  Some of my Democratic friends understandably criticized that, but it was probably a sensible move.  In advocating a Detention Center Citizens Advisory Committee, I found that it was championed on the Commission by Billy Garrett, but Allen and other conservatives, who are generally skeptical of governments and in favor of citizens getting a look at things, also favored the creation of the committee.]


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Further Thoughts on the County's Settlement with Chris Barela

The recent op-ed defending the County's $201,000 settlement with Detention Center Director Chris Barela was sincere and made some valid points. The County Commission genuinely feels it dodged an expensive bullet by settling with Barela. 

But questions remain.

In late 2013, it appeared that Barela had committed breaches of duty that might constitute crimes. Some were reported to authorities by a commissioner and others. Some had been reported to county management earlier, in detailed writings.

A state police investigation ensued. Too much time passed. Some say that the state police sat on it. At least one state police source suggested it was the District Attorney's fault. Eventually DASO investigated. 

Sheriff Kiki Vigil probably should have recused himself. He was already at odds with the County Manager and Commission. Two of his most generous campaign contributors ran private prisons, we later learned. (See March 2016 column.) I've learned since that Vigil articulated (and may still hold) an intention to take over the Detention Center. 

Vigil was not the ideal person to investigate Barela; and the showy arrest, and transportation of Barela to a distant county were unnecessary. 

Still, that investigation by two DASO deputies was thorough. While some of the apparently criminal conduct was time-barred and couldn't be prosecuted now, the investigation uncovered evidence of other possible violations. 

Barela is legally innocent of crimes; but we can still question his conduct and that of other public officials. 

Commissioner Billy Garrett's op-ed takes too much comfort from the grand jury's failure to indict Barela. If prosecutors felt some charges wouldn't sufficiently impress a criminal trial jury, that doesn't mean the alleged actions weren't taken. Statutes of limitations prevent criminal charges, but not administrative discipline. Further, as neither commissioners nor I sat on that grand jury, we don't know why it made certain choices, or even whether it heard all the witnesses it should have heard.
I can't make a reasoned decision on Mr. Barela's guilt unless and until I read the entire investigatory file. I won't rely on others' varying accounts of the facts.

A seasoned magistrate, who has a law degree and is not known (at least by me) to be aligned with any party in county government's civil war, signed the warrants. A seasoned and hard-working prosecutor believed this was a good case. These facts would have weakened Barela's false-arrest claim.

I know too much and too little. I know that Vigil had extraneous reasons to want Barela arrested and convicted, but did those reasons motivate the Sheriff's (mis)conduct? I know that other officials might wish to rub Vigil's nose in this mess by settling generously with Barela; but did those wishes help bring about the settlement? 

I watched the County fight tooth and nail against other employees. It offered no viable settlements to Jorge Granados or Kim Stewart. When two juries gave them ringing endorsements, the County appealed, on dubious grounds. (New Mexico Association of Counties was apparently making decisions in those cases, not the County. NMAC invoked a contractual exclusion to refuse coverage against Barela's claim, leaving the County on its own. Thus it's probably not fair to conclude that the County dealt more generously with Barela because he was one of the gang or knew where the bodies were buried.)

Did an overzealous Vigil screw this up? Did political considerations lessen prosecutorial vigor? Was embarrassing Vigil a motive for the settlement or just a happy by-product for some county officials?
I don't know. I do know that Barela is neither as evil as some detractors charge nor as guiltless as some supporters say. Most of us aren't.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News and other newspapers this morning, Sunday, 11 September.  It's also up on the newspaper's website (supposed to be, anyway) and will soon be up on KRWG-TV's website.]
[September 11!  It snuck up on me this year, that this was the 15th anniversary of that terrible morning.  I was actually in the Library of Congress that morning, researching.  An underground passage away from Congress.  They told us we had to leave -- but not why.  But people knew.  As I motorcycled away from the Capitol, toward where I stayed, there was a humongous traffic jam, of course.  I was grateful for the motorcycle's small size and maneuverability.  At supper that night, we could see the smoke from the Pentagon, still.  For days, people tended to stay in their houses, and numerous military helicopters swarmed overhead.]
[The next morning I motorcycled downtown.  Almost no one was out, except police and military folks.  I had to park further from the Lincoln Memorial than usual.  Security.  But I could walk to it. It was dawn.  None of the usual tourists and joggers.  Just me and the cops and soldiers -- and this one guy, doing his job.  While everyone else was trembling at home, in fear of going down to where the bad guys might strike again, he was just doing his job:]

[I should have written about September 11th in this morning's column.  And a glance at the morning paper, in which Steve Pearce misuses the heroism of everyday people by suggesting it shows that everything is Barack Obama's fault, tells me I'll remedy that omission next Sunday.]

Sunday, September 4, 2016

County Commission Work Session

I wandered into Tuesday's county commission work session to learn the status of the detention center citizens' advisory committee, but they were still talking about reorganizing the fire department.

Fire/Emergency Chief Eric Crespin was defending his plan to centralize operations. I suspected it wasn't a popular plan with the sixteen fire chiefs, for reasons that might range from highly sensible to somewhat selfish. 

As one volunteer fireman said afterward, “he got his ass handed to him by the commission. Crespin was doing an empire-building exercise, misusing numbers, which Ben Rawson and Billy Garrett took apart beautifully.” 

Rawson cross-examined Crespin like a lawyer questioning a hostile witness. I wondered whether his tone was justified. I guessed he was playing to the audience, which included some fire folks I supposed had helped him prepare his questions. It was effective, although I wondered whether it might have long-term costs if both Rawson and Crespin stick around. (When cross-examining witnesses, I start nice, and never use such a contemptuous tone unless a witness has already shown me and the jury he deserves it.) 

Garrett was firm, but more kindly. He called Crespin's plan “premature,” and rejected following it now, and urged Crespin to work with the fire chiefs to fix problems. He took a straw poll of fire chiefs present, asking whether they would work collegially with Crespin on problems – and left open some later reorganization if problems weren't fixed.

Crespin may have undermined his cause a bit. He reportedly didn't inform any fire chiefs that his proposal would be discussed at the work session. They found out from the Sun-News. One volunteer called that “really deceptive.” 

Crespin says there was no deception, and that he had mentioned at several meetings the need to consolidate. Knowing that “the only commonality they have is that they don't want to be under central administration,” Crespin might have done better to inform them more specifically of the impending discussion. 

Districts like their autonomy. At some fire stations, certain families have been involved since the station's inception. Volunteers like being part of a small band, not numbers in a larger group. There's an esprit de corps. They bring commitment, training, and knowledge. Their passion reminds one that this, like many local issues, directly impacts our fellow citizens. 

But long-term, consolidation is probably inevitable. Volunteerism is down, here and elsewhere. That's the key problem, and it's a tough one to solve. Volunteers say consolidation will drive volunteers away; but for a variety of reasons, stations can't maintain enough active volunteers to do the job. Will volunteer fire departments someday recede into history, like the town crier and lamplighter, or will some change in lifestyle or an imaginative marketing ploy save the day?

Crespin gave the commission a fistful of reasons to consolidate now. Some sounded prudent, others didn't seem to hold water. None convinced the commission. 

As to the detention center CAC, the commission heard Warden Patrick Snedeker from Las Vegas (NM) discuss the CAC instituted there in 2004, then articulated more specific directions for the one here.

The nine-member board will include: one family-member of an inmate; five commmission appointees, one by each commissioner; and appointees by the local ACLU, NAMI, and CAFé. It'll focus on civil rights, conditions of confinement, rehabilitation, and prisoners' transitions from jail to the outside world. I can only hope the commissioners appoint open-minded, thoughtful folks with no preconceived agendae, and lets the committee do its work independently.

Chris Barela told the commission he was open to the new advisory committee, adding, “The more viewpoints, the more ideas, I'm not afraid of that.” However, he urged them to avoid prospective committee members who might, because of recent history, have “pre-existing conflicts with me as an individual.” 
If the committee-members are clearly independent, and approach this prudently – listening attentively to prisoners, families, and guards, but not taking anyone's word as gospel – they may provide some important insights and ideas.
[But no CAC would have protected a detention officer from shooting himself in the leg recently.]
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 4 September, and is also available on  the newspaper's website (under the slightly unfortunate headline Fire Consolidation Plan Inevitable Long Term) and will presently be available on the KRWG-TV website as well.]

[btw, I've been told that the newspaper (hard-copy) omitted the sentence  "The nine-member board will include one family member of an inmate; five commission appointees, one by each commissioner; and appointees by the local ACLU, NAMI, and NM CAFé. It’ll focus on civil rights, conditions of confinement, rehabilitation, and prisoners’ transitions from jail to the outside world."  Probably had a smaller hole on that page than anticipated.]