Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Christmas Column in a Year Full of Hate

Merry Christmas!

Or Happy Holidays!

There are so many gifts I wish I could give . . .

To our country: a renewed sense of purpose; a government closer to all of our ideals and needs than the one that will soon commence; and a renewed ability to listen to each others' views without simultaneously forming in our minds a caustic response.

To our state:
- putting top priority on using our sunlight as an energy source, for the good of our pocketbooks and our planet;
- better funding for the judiciary, for everything from courthouse security and better salaries for judges and jurors, to programs that deal with drug addiction and mental-health problems; and for public defenders;
- legalization of marijuana, which would not only be the right thing to do but also help ease our financial problems, by eliminating the vast expenses of incarcerating marijuana users and retailers and by providing additional state revenues;
- and, last but far from least, a helluva lot of rain! And a good outcome to the water litigation and a much-enhanced appreciation of the need to conserve water in our desert southwest.

To our community:
- a repaired and improved mental health system, considerably better than what we had before Governor Susana Martinez wrongfully destroyed it in 2013 over phantom fraud allegations;
- more funding for programs like Community of Hope, Casa de Peregrinos, Casa de Niños, El Caldito, and Beloved Community;
- more people like Gerry Vest, Ann Palermo, and Carole Bernal, all of whom we lost this year (along with many other fine folks); Gerry did great work helping troubled veterans, and I never saw him without a huge smile and his two small dogs; Ann's commitment to our community was obviously deep and broad; Carole was a gutsy cancer survivor a fiercely proud grandmother, and a loyal friend;
- more support for the arts community and such members as The Big Picture, The Unsettled Gallery, Mesquite Art Gallery, Art Obscura, and Más Art, and the Rio Grande Theater, as well as NMSU and city museums, and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum;
- and a 2017 in which no law-enforcement officer is shot, knifed, punched, beaten, or spat on – and in which no officer has to shoot anyone. Or mistakenly thinks s/he has to.

But with my sleigh at Mascitelli's, I'll have to settle for giving what I can: I'll keep writing these columns so long as people keep reading 'em, though my preferred genre is fiction. (My present to Sound-off is the fun folks have saying that the columns are fiction.) 

I'll keep telling the stories of citizens, peace officers, public employees, and others who get the short end of the stick (or get whacked with the business end) and aren't in a position to speak up.
And I hope to bring an occasional smile to your lips with photographs of sunsets, or profiles of some of our best, like Josh and Arrow.

I'll also keep working to get our new community radio station, KTAL, on the air within the next three months. Another gift the community can give itself. “¿Que tal?” you might ask. We're over some hurdles, and hope to start podcasting in January and broadcasting in March.

And I'll keep talking – and listening – to everyone, with my mind as open as I can pry it. Even if we disagree about some issues, in the desert we're all neighbors, no matter how far apart we may seem. 

So Happy New Year, neighbor!

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 25 December 2016, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG-TV's website.]

[Reflecting on this column and on Walt Rubel's, the phrase "practice random acts of kindness" kept coming back to my mind.  (The whole saying is "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.")  It's still a good thought -- and a good practice -- all year round, and worth a column in itself.  Occasionally in San Francisco, when I felt particularly good (and flush, I guess, and when tolls were a lot less than they are now) I used to go through a toll booth and not only pay my $2 but give the toll-taker an extra $20 with instructions to let the next ten people through without paying.  It was great.  The toll-taker's day was brightened, as were the days of ten people I never even saw -- or more, if others decided to pay for folks behind them.)
Recently I'd been thinking of trying to urge folks here to follow the practice, at least around Christmas.  Saturday at the market a friend told us about her daughter.  Her parents hadn't told her much about Christmas.  Then in a long NPR skit the daughter heard that there was an old man who went around giving gifts.  When she announced that news to her parents, they listened and remarked on how near that was -- which indeed it is.  They did not express either skepticism or belief, but just listened, letting her absorb what she might.  I liked that.  In the same spirit, urging folks to give not only to their families and friends but to random strangers or slight acquaintances -- all year but particularly around Christmas -- seems a good idea.  For all of us.  Atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, and others ought not to be put off by the association of Christmas with Christianity, because that association is slight.  Historically, there were mid-winter festivals before Christ; and more recently, Christmas is much too much of a marketing trick - "Celebrate the baby Jesus by buying more plastic trinkets," as another friend said Saturday morning.  Christmas just happens to be a time when, in our culture, folks are more receptive to the spirit of giving.  Loathing the way businesses pervert that doesn't mean we can't share in the spiritBeing generous at Christmas doesn't endorse what anyone else may be doing.  Further, even if some say or do hateful things in the name of Jesus, his story as told in the gospels is certainly a lovely one from which we can all learn.]

[I also resolve for next year that at least once a month I'd like to use the column for just a profile of a person, place, or situation that illustrates the good in our community.]

[Gerry and Carole.  Ann Palermo was pretty well-known and the Sun-News wrote about her.  Gerry and Carole weren't.  I knew Gerry casually.  A gentle, smiling guy I talked with often at the Farmers' Market.  I knew he worked with troubled veterans, and was much appreciated by them.  But to most of the community, he was probably unknown.  So was Carole.  Earlier this year I wrote a draft column about her.  What I wanted to express, aside from personal respect and affection, was respect for the folks no one knows who have good hearts and do what they can to make ours a better world.  She had a lot of tough stuff thrown at her.  She survived breast cancer, and rather than hiding that fact she turned it into a crusade to urge younger women to take care of themselves.  She and Reymundo had a long, caring marriage.  Behind many anonymous doors in our community live others who live good lives and show tremendous courage in dealing with pain and unfairness.  I'd rather write about them than Senators and Congressfolk.]

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fitting the County Commission's UDC Meeting into a Busy Day

I rush from the County Commission UDC meeting to take my 86-year-old friend to the doctor. 

My friend was an NMSU professor here for thirty years. In 1965, he briefly made Cruces famous, when he and some other locals made a low-budget feature film, in days when only Hollywood made features. AP ran a national story on him. Now he shuffles into the doctor's office, unknown.

“Beautiful mountains,” he says, pointing at the Organs. (I could do a column on people's first reactions to the Organs.) He first saw them in newspaper articles NMSU professor Newman Reed sent after NMSU offered him a job. (When Reed started here, Solano still had cattle-gates.) 

Thinking cattle-gates reminds me of the UDC, which so many worked so hard to make the best it could be. Others tried to sabotage it, saying it's imperfect (which, like anything human-made, it is) and should be tabled, left to the next commission. “Left to die,” they mean. If they really meant improvements, then amendments could do that. Why would we want new commissioners to spend hundreds of hours, or make Planning & Zoning and scores of citizens repeat endless hours of hearings, to make unspecified small improvements? 

After the doctor, I take my friend to the bank. From the parking lot on Telshor, I let the western mountains on the horizon catch my eye. I'm glad I returned to live under this vast sky. 

A realtor told the Commission he'd heard a lot of talk about democracy, and that the UDC shouldn't be passed. He didn't really explain what was wrong with it, except that it was “restrictive.” Reasonable restrictions, while they may protect citizens, can be inconvenient for realtors.)

So I said more about democracy. The county worked on this thing for years. I feel like people have been inviting me to UDC meetings since I was about seven years old. There were countless public-input meetings throughout the county. The P&Z held lengthy, detailed meetings – some of which my wife attended, hour after hour, watching the sausage get made. Right up to the end, staff and the P&Z were making recommendations responding to public input. The P&Z made recommendations. The elected Commission acted. Commissioner David Garcia, who always seems painfully earnest about trying to do what's right, ensured that key questions concerning affordable housing and grazing rights were aired, heard from numerous citizens, then cast the deciding vote. Yep, democracy.

I stop for supper at the Co-op, a democratic institution which is celebrating its 40th year. I'm thinking about time and change and our varied roles over time in a place we call home. Tuesday the huge Commission Chambers were filled today. Forty years ago, when I was a reporter, the commission (just three commissioners then) met in the old courthouse, in a small room with hardly a dozen chairs. No one contemplated a UDC – or a county nearly so populous! Everything east of Tortugas Mountain was desert where we dirt-biked. Retired City Manager Robert Garza was a mischievous kid. Saturday we watched his son help NMSU beat UNM. 

My wife joins me at the Co-op. She talks and laughs with staff, hugs some of them, listens. Earlier she spoke passionately at the Commission meeting. After the UDC passed, she stood talking at length with people who'd opposed it, listening to their arguments, hoping to facilitate better communication between them and County staff.

We all do the best we can. The Commission did its best. We all owe thanks to the departing commissioners, even if we sometimes disagreed with them.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 18 December 206, and on  the newspaper's website, and will appear presently on the KRWG-TV website.]

[I wasn't happy with this column.  Maybe trying to mix things that don't mix so well: a brief account of the County Commission meeting on the Uniform Development Code and a more impressionistic portrait of a day that seemed to feature a couple of things I think about now and then, the varied roles we perform in our community in a given day and the changes in our roles and relationships over long periods of time in a particular place.  The latter fit in with part of what I wanted to say about the UDC, while the former was just something my day seemed to thrust into my thoughts.  (Before dawn I was writing a fictional scene set in 1968, a scene in which one character, listening on radio to the Chicago Convention, concludes that the only way to stop the Viet Nam war would be to start assassinating high public figures; riding to pickleball, I spent 20 minutes counseling a legal client, then spent another ten minutes talking with a second client before I got to play; I enjoyed pickleball; then I listened and even got up a couple of times to speak about the UDC; then I was sort of a caregiver for my friend; then I supped at the Mountain View Co-op, to use up the hour before my KTAL Radio board meeting.)  
Driving my friend around helped make me think about changes over time.  He got here in 1959, I think.  More than a half-century ago.  I arrived 20 years later.  He was a professor, married, with a daughter and soon a son as well.  At 40, he had never camped in the wilderness or ridden a motorcycle, although a few years later those became the focus of his life.  He got divorced.  We rode dirt bikes around outside our small town, and street bikes across the country.  He retired and became a hermit on our land at the southern end of Sierra County, building a modest home himself, for perhaps $5,000, and living out there without electricity or indoor plumbing or paved road for 24 years, until health mandated the move back into town.  Now he no longer drives, or walks very far.  His mind's still sharp, though, and he's still funny.  Friends and former students still enjoy hanging out with him, making a trip with him to the grocery store much more a pleasure than a chore.  Too, he was always an open, generous sort, inspires the same attitude toward him now.
An incident at the Co-op illustrated the change theme too.  An acquaintance joined me briefly.  Thinking about the idea of a column about people's first glimpses of the Organ Mountains, I asked about his.  He recounted a visit here in the early 1990's to his brother.  That reminded me that although I'm not sure I've ever actually met his brother, about 45 years ago we were seeing the same woman (who was actually married to someone else) for a short time.  I thought about how much that all mattered at the time, and about the fact that now I can't recall her name.  
And a community changes over time too.   This one is no longer what it was in many memories; but the populous county we are now, with all sorts of development all over, probably needs a UDC.
At any rate, sometimes a piece of writing can combine a couple of very different elements in a way that sheds a little more light on both.  I don't think I managed that here.  Sorry.]

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fund New Mexico's Courts!

The Department of Finance and Administration (“DFA”) wants our legislators to do something really dumb this session. 

We depend on courts for justice. Our state constitution makes the judiciary one of three coequal branches of government. 

The judiciary says it needs $171.8 million this year. This funding would also help “problem-solving courts” that deal with drugs and mental health issues. (Even at this funding-level, our judges would remain the worst-paid in the nation. They deserve better.) In addition, the courts anticipate more child abuse and neglect cases, since the Children, Youth and Families Department will have more money.

The Legislative Finance Committee has recommended boosting court-system funding by 3.5 percent, to $162.6 million. DFA has proposed keeping New Mexico Courts' funding at approximately $157 million.

DFA doesn't want to face the real-life consequences its plan would have. Court officials say DFA's proposal would cause elimination of 458 spots in drug court programs across New Mexico. A DFA spokesperson claimed that local sources (which will also be reeling from cuts) could somehow make up the difference. Yeah, right!

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil testified that the proposed funding level would lead to cuts in drug-court programs and court-appointed attorneys. Court security is also nonexistent in some courthouses.

State revenues are down; but cutting the courts' budget is like saving money by not repairing your brakes or putting oil in your car. These short-term cuts would create greater expenses long-term: we spend zillions housing drug addicts in our jails, and if the drug courts can cut the number of such inmates by even a small percentage, that saves us money – and human beings.

7th District Judge Matt Reynolds (Sierra County) told me recently that security is a key issue, with many judges around the state unprotected.

He said further cuts to meet a temporary fiscal emergency would be unwise.

The cuts could mean an end to the three drug courts that have grown into a significant resource in the 7th during the past decade. “If you had a pecan grove, you wouldn't chop down mature pecan trees for fuel in an extra-cold winter,” he said. As with pecans trees, it has taken years to get the drug courts to be what they are today.

He also agreed that such cuts would be illusory. Drug courts divert many addicts into programs where they not only deal with their addictions but get a GED (if necessary) and jobs. Keeping these folks in jail is a whole lot more expensive. Further, jails mostly have revolving doors: without treatment and serious help, an addicted inmate, with no lawful means of feeding his or her habit, steals soon after release and quickly returns to jail. Drug courts can sometimes deal with the root problems and stop that cycle.

“It's painful to see people just go to jail, when the drug courts could help them become contributing members of society,” Judge Reynolds said.

The numbers are significant. Most crimes here are drug-related. It's a national social problem, which Judge Reynolds called “rampant over-prescription of pain medication, and the resulting addiction.” The U.S., with just 3% of the world's population, uses 80% of the world's pain-killers. (“I doubt we have 80% of the world's pain,” commented the Judge.) New Mexico was recently ranked #1 among states for per capita drug abuse. Sierra County ranks #1 in the state for opioids.

Reynolds notes that most of the addicted individuals helped by the drug courts are parents. Thus the help done often affects the next generation as well.

Please tell our legislators and the governor these cuts don't cut it!

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 11 December 2016, and will presently appear on the newspaper's website and the KRWG-TV website.]

[There's a lot more to say on this subject than fits into a newspaper column.  Notably, we have state courts without any real security.  We've been lucky so far with that; but civil lawsuits and criminal trials obviously arouse strong feeling -- negative ones, for folks who don't win.  (I recall years ago in San Francisco they ceased giving rulings from the bench in small claims court cases after a losing litigant bit off the winner's nose in the hallway.  They started mailing out decisions.)  Judges and jurors shouldn't have to be so vulnerable.
I know there are lots of priority programs in the state.  I'm glad no one's assigned me the chore of deciding how to spend New Mexico's more-than-usually-limited funds.  But this is important.  So is appropriate funding for public defenders in criminal cases.  Being a just society is an essential goal.]

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Belated Justice - Jury Finds against County Treasurer

Justice appears to have been done. Finally.

As most readers know, David Gutierrez has been our County Treasurer for nearly eight years. In 2014, he requested to ride along with a female employee (whom he'd sexually harassed before, I've heard) to the bank, then had her drive back by an odd route and ultimately offered her money for a couple of hours in a motel room. He then tried to convince his deputy to delay reporting this misconduct so that he could “smooth things over” with the victim.

Make no mistake: this was not sex, but a use of his power as her employer to embarrass her. In many states, what he did would not only be sexual harassment but a crime, solicitation of prostitution. Unfortunately, New Mexico's statute doesn't cover his precise conduct.

I'll disclose I have a history with this case: I worked with the County Democratic Party to help it throw him off the central committee and censure him. We also encouraged him to resign. I felt strongly that the Democratic Party should lead the effort to recall him. I also looked into the recall procedure and discussed the criminal statute with an Assistant D.A. 

I felt strongly about it because people shouldn't abuse power, particularly to harm those under their control. (As a lawyer in a big law firm, I thought that how others treated secretaries and other employees beneath them in the system was a major indication of their character.) That's particularly so with a “public servant.” It's particularly so when the employee is under some further disadvantage, such as being female or a member of a minority ethnic group.

I also thought Gutierrez was arrogant in refusing to resign when he had admitted such misconduct. It rankled that we were paying him.

There was also further information the jurors didn't hear. Once I wrote about this incident, I got several calls from people who wanted to tell me more about Gutierrez. They drew a portrait of an office in which the boss's undue interest in pretty women was systemic and unpleasant. 

It's right that the jury didn't hear such further accounts. Those were not under oath. The jurors' task was to decide just this case, on its own facts. 

I did not attend the trial. I have not researched the details of this public corruption / gross immorality provision, and offer no opinion on how an appeal would come out. (The prosecution may appeal the dismissal of a companion criminal charge.)

But the quotes I read from the defense seemed childish. His story that his proposition wasn't serious, but was meant to compliment her and cheer her up? Cow manure. His testimony is inherently weak – and doubly unconvincing because he apparently didn't say that when his deputy questioned him.
His attorney's “Donald Trump did it” argument in closing? Inappropriate. Also probably a more promising argument in Georgia than in Doña Ana County, where candidate Trump didn't do so well. Even most Trump supporters had to hold their noses over that aspect of his character – or deny it to themselves, or conclude that Trump's character flaws were part of God's plan.

Kudos to D.A. Mark D'Antonio and the trial attorneys for prosecuting Gutierrez and winning. I wondered why things took so long. There were reasons: the need for an actual request from the county, uncertainty about the victim's full cooperation, local judges recusing themselves, and the eventual judge's busy schedule. 
I'd rather have seen this many moons ago; but the wheels of justice turn at their own pace, not mine.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 4 December, and on the newspaper's website, and will appear presently on the KRWG-TV website.] 

[The length of time Mr. Gutierrez sat in office after admitting this misconduct not only shows something about him but indicts community leaders, including this columnist, for at least laziness in not facing the significant time-challenge of recalling him from office.  Some folks didn't care.  Some folks, including me, pushed it for awhile, but couldn't generate enough enthusiasm and went back to doing other things.  We're all busy, and pressed for time, and recalling him would have been a significant chore requiring many participants.  But we ought to have done it, rather than paying him a salary for an unnecessary year or two and letting him suppose his conduct was all right.]

[As to why he wasn't tried and convicted on the crime of soliciting prostitution:  New Mexico doesn't have a criminal offense named specifically "Solicitation of Prostitution"; but there's a statute on "Promotion of Prostitution":

30-9-4. Promoting prostitution.  

Promoting prostitution consists of any person, acting other than as a prostitute or patron of a prostitute:   

A.   knowingly establishing, owning, maintaining or managing a house of prostitution or a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed, or participating in the establishment, ownership, maintenance or management thereof;   

B.   knowingly entering into any lease or rental agreement for any premises which a person partially or wholly owns or controls, knowing that such premises are intended for use as a house of prostitution or as a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed;   

C.   knowingly procuring a prostitute for a house of prostitution or for a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed;   

D.   knowingly inducing another to become a prostitute;   

E.   knowingly soliciting a patron for a prostitute or for a house of prostitution or for any place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed;   

F.   knowingly procuring a prostitute for a patron and receiving compensation therefor;   

G.   knowingly procuring transportation for, paying for the transportation of or transporting a person within the state with the intention of promoting that person's engaging in prostitution;   

H.   knowingly procuring through promises, threats, duress or fraud any person to come into the state or causing a person to leave the state for the purpose of prostitution; or   

I.   under pretense of marriage, knowingly detaining a person or taking a person into the state or causing a person to leave the state for the purpose of prostitution.   

Whoever commits promoting prostitution is guilty of a fourth degree felony.

The only subsection remotely applicable would be 30-9-4(D): "knowingly inducing another to become a prostitute."  At least arguable, had the victim consented to prostitute herself for Mr. Gutierrez, he'd be guilty of this; but she didn't.  Could he have been indicted for "Attempted Promotion of Prostitution"?]