Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dispatch from the Desert

Recent rains remind me to catch up on giving a little ink to the various creatures who surround us.

We've a healthy population of vinegaroons. (I know folks who grew up here and have never seen one.) They're ugly, but mean no harm to us. Conveniently, they eat scorpions.

We hadn't seen a baby vinegaroon until one showed up the other night with his parents, then alone two days later. He showed no fear, striding around as if he were master of his world. Even strolled into the house for a look.

We've seen a fair number of scorpions this season. We place an upside-down glass on top of 'em and slide a postcard underneath, carry them out to the front gate, and toss 'em over. Sometimes they immediately raise their tails in anger. Others, like the fellow last night, remain relaxed and just enjoy the ride.

A few weeks ago we had a first: a banded desert centipede in the living room. He seemed as big and fast as an NFL running back. I killed him. No time to trap him – and really didn't want to see him again. Their bites ain't fatal; but they ain't fun, and there's something discomfiting about a centipede lurking under the couch.

It's been a quiet year for rattlesnakes.
We used to treat 'em like the scorpions. A neighbor made a tool out of flexible wire and a hollow tube, and I'd catch the rattlers in the noose, drop 'em into a garbage can, and drive them somewhere.

Then we tried just letting them be; but when you're outdoors a lot, day and night, it gets a little old, nearly stepping on a rattler or wondering if the cat has sense enough to stare from a safe distance.

I killed the final one we saw last fall. It was dusk, so I hacked straight through to make sure he was dead. As they will, the severed parts writhed for a while.

An hour later the two severed ends of the snake had reattached themselves – so closely that in a photo it's hard to see where the snake was severed. In the morning, when my wife carried the snake down to the arroyo, the two ends stuck together as if they'd never been separated.

Nature not only provides us with rattlers and scorpions, but with faux rattlers and scorpions who aren't dangerous to us but perhaps gain some security from looking like their more famous cousins. Kind of like a western gunman or 1930's gangster talking the talk and sporting a gat, but secretly hoping you won't test him.

The bullsnake resembles the rattler, but doesn't harm humans. Some even become pets. They eat rattlers. Perhaps they evolved to match the rattler's appearance as a defense mechanism; but maybe they started as poisonous as rattlers and then got religion.

The solpugid looks startlingly like a scorpion, but with two oversized arms that look as though they were in casts. He rarely harms humans. He has no poison, but may bite if handled. Again, you wonder: it's clever of him to look like a scorpion to scare us; but mightn't it get him killed?

We also notice how often the same plants and animals do the same things around the same date each year.

Right now the bees are all over the purple blossoms of the Texas Sage, though in smaller numbers than in recent years. The rain has the vinegaroons out and about. The barrel cactus is blooming. The rufous hummingbird showed up recently – same time as usual.

All's right with the world – out here, anyway.

[The column above appears in today's Las Cruces Sun-News -- Sunday, 27 July 2014.]
[I'd intended to add a couple of pictures of the snake that reattached itself.  I'd been meaning to put that wonder up on the blog since last fall.  But last night when I looked, I got to the closer picture of the dead snake and had a very strong feeling that it would somehow offend the dead snake's spirit, and that I'd best omit that.  Sorry!]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

City Employee Wins Judgment against City

A year after a jury awarded former Doña Ana County Public Works Director Jorge Granados $250,000 in damages, another jury has awarded Las Cruces City employee Sandra Hunter $ 50,000. 
On July 3, 2013, a jury determined Granados had been retaliated against and subjected to a hostile work environment. I talked to jurors afterward. They were in Howard Beale mode: damned mad and not going to take it anymore. 
On July 11, 2014, a jury held the City liable for a hostile work environment suffered by Hunter. (She did not succeed on other claims.)

(Lawyers Daniela Labinoti and Brett Duke, who represented both Granados and Hunter, also recently filed a lawsuit against the D.A's Office.) 
Ms. Hunter began working for the City in 2004. She complained of discrimination, and in 2006 she pointed out that employees were getting paid for unworked time through falsified time records.  

The City allegedly responded by punishing her. She filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although filing such charges is legally protected, the City punished her further. Allegedly, Hunter kept doing her job well but the City repeatedly transferred her, placed her on administrative leave, put her through a forced psychiatric evaluation, and unfairly disciplined her for matters that other employees weren't disciplined for. 
For example, Hunter alleged that one day she called to tell her supervisor she would be fifteen minutes late.  Her supervisor being unavailable, Hunter left a message with the supervisor's assistant.  The City investigated this incident at length, conducting multiple interviews and drafting numerous memoranda, and eventually suspended Hunter without pay for one day. Hunter says other employees were frequently late and went unreprimanded. 

Hunter will receive some compensation for her emotional distress.

We get no reimbursement for any tax dollars spent harassing this woman. Or for the $50,000 plus very substantial attorney fees we'll pay. 
I sat through the week-long Granados trial. (The jurors' disgust with then-County-Manager Sue Padilla and other officials was readily understandable to me.) I also knew the case could have and should have been settled before trial, saving the County a million dollars or so.

I didn't hear a word of testimony in Hunter, so I won't assess the verdict. (I've spoken a bit to lawyers on both sides, but don't feel comfortable getting into detail about testimony I wasn't present for. The City disagrees with the verdict but hasn't decided whether or not to appeal.)

But I did immediately wonder how this happened. 
One key witness was EEO Specialist Mary Pierce. Ironically, Pierce, then employed by the County, was a major player in the Sally Ramirez discrimination case – which, as I discussed in a column last year, ended with Doña Ana County subjected to U.S. Department of Justice monitoring and required to retrain County employees.

Did the City factor in Ramirez when hiring Pierce? Will the City require some retraining of her after Hunter? Or is Pierce blameless?

Don't know. City officials can't discuss personnel matters.

Meanwhile the recent effort by Sheriff Garrisonberger to fire Undersheriff Eddie Lerma was a ready-made lawsuit. Todd Garrison's the third Sheriff to have Lerma serve as Undersheriff. Lerma served under Garrison for nearly four years – then had the sense to doubt whether Rick Seeberger's tight control of Garrison's operation was good for the County. A firing offense. I doubt Seeberger cared about fairness or whether the County paid Lerma damages some day. 
Granados was one among many recent cases by former employees against the County. I hope Hunter is anomalous, and doesn't mean the City is getting equally careless in its treatment of employees.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 20 July 2014.]

[With regard to the last paragraph: I can't overstate the difference in context.  I was hearing incredible numbers of complaints -- and incredibly passionate complaints -- about the county manager and her pals from county employees, former county employees, and others doing business (or charity) with the county.  Most of the places I saw or smelled smoke, further investigation turned up a lot of fire.  In addition, there were a host of lawsuits by employees and former employees.  Too, I have the impression from a variety of sources that the Granados case could have been settled for a small fraction of what the County ultimately spent on it.  (I know a lot less about Hunter, but the verdict was a lot smaller than the Granados verdict.) 
I spent a week in court observing the Granados trial because it seemed symptomatic of a serious problem; and when I wrote about it on the blog, hundreds of people, including many county employees and officials, read the posts and many individuals contacted me, some of them anonymously, concerning problems with county administration.  Hunter -- the facts of which started nearly a decade ago, even before the tenure of current City Manager Bob Garza -- seems a more isolated case (and a closer one, if I read the jury's verdict right).    
Having said that, though, let me make clear that I'm open to hearing about problems with any government entity. ]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Invitation to Las Danzas

We are all invited to a celebration of a hundred years of life and dancing in a nearby village.

In 1914 a group of Indigenes from Mexico settled in the village of Tortugas. (This column concerns the group that arrived in 1914, but acknowledges with great respect that the Tigua, Piro, and Manso had been living and dancing in the village since well before 1914.)

We would know nothing of this group from Mexico if they had not been led by a remarkable man, Juan Pacheco, and later by a second remarkable man, Juan's son, Leo Pacheco.

Both men were remarkable – first, for their deep desire to keep their culture alive and, second, because they had sufficient strength of character to fulfill that desire despite poverty, society's indifference, and the way generations drift away from what they have been taught, usually in favor of whatever is new and glittery.

Central to this were las danzas. Their culture was a particular blend of Christianity and Aztec tales. When Leo told me the meanings of some of the dances, his explanation was an almost seamless web with elements from each.

If you have not seen las danzas, you should. They are very colorful. The simple music (originally drums and a violin, but now just drums) creates a compelling beat. Like the stories behind the dances, the costumes mix Christian and Aztec images. A dancer might wear a Native American headdress and bright red clothing with a scarf on the back with a picture of the Virgin. Drums beat as the dancers transport a Christian altar down the street.

To keep this tradition alive was not easy, in a village far from its origins. For example, originally only adult men danced, except for a few malinches – little girls involved in certain dances. When I met Leo in 1969 he was having to compromise. There were not enough men available. (Those present were proud to be there. One was a Los Angeles police officer who'd grown up here and still came back each year to dance.) Thus boys would be allowed to dance. (I don't recall whether women danced too that year.)

Leo loved his children, and the other children; but the compromise pained him. It was necessary, though. He would not let the tradition die out.

Leo and his wife, Estella, had twelve daughters. Their only son, Leo Martine Pacheco, died young. They were a strong – and strongly Catholic – family. The annual danzas were a central feature of family life. It was a lot of work – and the history represented was “who we are,” as one daughter recently said. When I mentioned how different Christianity and the Aztec culture seem from each other, she added, “A lot of people see us as uncivilized, just sacrificing without remorse; but when we converted to Christianity, something drew us to it.”

Eventually Leo became too ill to keep the danzas going himself.

His daughters (including Yolanda Jaramillo, the eldest) determined to continue the traditional danzas Leo had worked to keep alive. This was not a culture or a subject in which it was expected or easy for women to take the lead. Undoubtedly some men resisted their efforts at first.

But Leo and Estella raised strong women. One of his daughters told me earlier this year that whenever someone dropped off some material for use in improving their home, the daughters were expected to help out, learning building skills not generally learned by women in those days.

Leo's daughters persevered. When I watched the dances last December, there were several dozen dancers – and a lively, warm spirit. About 200 will dance to celebrate a hundred years of Danzas Aztecas here. (But please don't applaud. They are not performers!)

Sunday, July 27th there will be a mass at 10:30 a.m. at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tortugas. (The Shrine, which Juan helped to build, will also celebrate its centennial this year.) Then there will be a circle of dancing in front of the church, at 11:30 or so, followed by dancing toward the Pacheco home, where there will be a reception. The public is invited to attend the mass, watch the dancing, and enjoy the reception.

These are friends I respect. I feel honored to have been invited to share this celebration with them. I think not only of the mathematical fact of a century but of the thousand moments of difficulties, changes, and petty jealousies that added to the difficulty of loyally maintaining one's heritage and beliefs for approximately thirty-six thousand, five-hundred and twenty-five days. I will go to honor that achievement – and because this joyous event should be a lot of fun. See you there!
 [The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 13 June.  I also wrote about this group on 23 December 2012]

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Businessman to Listen To

Edward Filene must be turning over in his grave at the attitudes of both the National Chamber of Commerce and the local version.

A famous and successful store in Boston, Filene's was founded in 1881 by William Filene, German-Jewish immigrant from Prussia. Sons Edward and Lincoln took over in 1891. Inheriting the store in 1901, they became two of the nation's best-known businessmen in the early 20th Century.

Edward quickly earned Filene's a reputation as a customer-oriented store, but he was also a pioneer in employee relations. He instituted a minimum wage for women, profit-sharing, the 40-hour work week, health clinics, and paid vacations. He encouraged formation of the Filene Cooperative Association, maybe the earliest American company union. Most businessmen objected violently to engaging in collective bargaining or arbitration with their workers, and sometimes the violence was real and bloody. Filene, earlier than most, recognized that the workers were not his. He also helped pass the country's first Workmen's Compensation Law in 1911.

He was a founder of the Boston, U.S., and international chambers of commerce.

Of course, he was unusual. According to a friend, “He had a great distaste for material things, lived very modestly, never owned an automobile, and was scrupulously careful about small expenditures, all because he felt that he was a trustee for the money that he had earned and that the trustee-ship involved turning his accumulations into the greatest possible disinterested public service.”

In the 1930's, he cooperated with FDR, unlike most wealthy men. He believed that mass production, mass distribution, and worker purchasing power were the answer to economic depression. Roosevelt called him “an analyst who was able, by mathematical calculations, to make plain to us that our modern mechanism of abundance cannot be kept in operation unless the masses of our people are enabled to live abundantly.”

Henry Ford also saw that if he paid workers reasonably, he got better work – and his employees could buy cars from him.

Our business community lacks that vision.

Sadly, today's national Chamber of Commerce is a mouthpiece for the reactionary view on any issue.

The local Chamber didn't deign to discuss the minimum wage initiative with CAFÉ while there was still time to negotiate.

The Chamber also opposed the proposed new National Monument, a highly popular proposal that looked likely to help us economically. Years of discussions involved compromise with a variety of voices.

Yet in the final months, the Chamber submitted a guest column to the Sun-News calling for “cooperation” and “an issue agreed upon locally.” Proponents thought that's what they'd painstakingly worked out.

The guest column claimed there were “no provisions for BLM land releases for the future growth of Las Cruces.” But the areas close to Las Cruces, where such development might reasonably occur, weren't part of the proposal. Did they imagine housing developments on top of Las Uvas or the Robledos, or at Kilbourne Hole? There's ample room for such growth as we're likely to see – or should see, in an arid desert where we're already overtaxing our water supply.

After six years of community discussion built tremendous local support, the Chamber said “Wait, we need to discuss this.”

Shortly before CAFÉ had to finalize its wae proposal, a friend told me the Chamber now wanted to talk. He said the Chamber recognized something was going to happen, and wanted to help shape it. That seemed reasonable, if belated; but soon afterward another Chamber guest column rejected the increase and offered no alternate proposal.

Instead, the Chamber found three friendly city councilors and quickly got an inferior ordinance passed. (Remind you of Steve Pearce's clever effort to confuse monument supporters by proposing very minimal protection after years of opposition?)

I'm no expert. But Greg Smith's recent suggestion that increasing the minimum wage was a cause of the 2007 recession is nonsense. Dangerous shenanigans by banks, investment companies, and mortgage companies created highly risky investment vehicles and an overheated housing market full of bad loans. Officially, the main cause was “widespread failure of financial regulation.” No authority I've read mentions the minimum wage.

Economists don't agree that a wage increase will kill business. But I have good friends who own businesses in town and are strongly opposed to CAFÉ's proposal. I don't know that the proposal is perfect. I wish the business community had engaged in a meaningful dialogue while there was time for improvements.

The City Council vote was a perfectly legal tactic to confuse voters and defeat the CAFÉ initiative. It may succeed. But it was unfortunate. In spirit, the business community reminded me of a kid I knew who used to kick over the Monopoly board if he seemed to be losing.

William Filene, a founder of the National Chamber, would have had coffee with Sarah Nolan and tried to work out the best solution for workers, business owners, and the community.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 6 July.]

[In the column I mentioned two Chamber guest columns.   Earlier, I drafted but didn't finish a response to the one on the proposed minimum wage hike, and have added a bit of that draft below:

Chamber of Commerce President Bill Allen's recent guest column in these pages was disappointing. A mutual friend had me kind of expecting something reasonable.

Allen nowhere indicated a desire to work things out. He asserted blandly that no one would oppose a “reasonable” hike; but he never gave anyone a hint what he or the Chamber might consider “reasonable.” 

Rather, he took an extremely pessimistic view on the legitimate issue of how the hike would affect small, local businesses. 

Worse, he started talking about “outsiders.” Sorry, Bill. I remember being a civil rights worker in the Mississippi Delta. Fayette County, Tennessee. The white folks, startled by the nascent efforts of local blacks to free themselves, shouted about “outside agitators.” I was indeed an outsider, but we'd come in because local folks wanted and needed us. So “outsiders” has a tinny sound in these old ears, Bill. Suggest you stick to rational arguments on substance. Hell, Jesus and Buddha were probably outsiders in most of the towns and villages they visited; doesn't undermine the wise words they often spoke. 

It also strikes me if that “outsiders” label is a jab at CAFE, because it is not a purely local organization, then it applies to half the businessfolk in town, because McDonald's, UPS, Farmers' Insurance, Hobby Lobby, and the like are not purely local organizations either. They're huge international corporations that exist to make money for shareholders. If we close our ears to local members of CAFE, which at least exists to try to do good, then surely we oughtn't to listen to local employees or franchisees of business corporations, whose charters say nothing about trying to do good.

(Personally, I'd listen to everyone. But then, I'm an outsider. Moved here initially in 1969. Not sure about Mr. Allen.  But maybe we should just listen to J. Paul Taylor, Billy Garrett, Merrie Lee Soules, and Gary Esslinger.  And Robin Westbrock, when she starts talking.)]

Sunday, June 29, 2014

One Good Thing We Can Do

Each year Los Indigenes from Tortugas make a pilgrimage up Tortugas Mountain (aka “A” Mountain) in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They have a decades-old lease for that purpose, and will continue to have and use that lease for decades more.

The pilgrimage is sacred. It's also an important local cultural event. A recent New Mexico Magazine article reminds us that some of it can only be witnessed here and in Mexico City.

Meanwhile the area has become a much-used recreation site. It has an incredibly isolated and natural feel to it, despite being less than five minutes from NMSU and the Interstate. For thousands of Las Cruces residents, Tortugas Recreation Area is a place they can hike or bike in a natural and quiet environment – or have a sunset picnic.

Marred only by a couple of sand and gravel operations north of Dripping Springs Road, it's a peaceful, desert landscape into which LCPS dropped Centennial High School a few years ago because the land was cheap. (Never mind the cost to City and County to improve roads and provide other requirements.)

Doña Ana Sand & Gravel is one of those mining operations. Since the 1950's DASG has mined sand and gravel, mostly or entirely on the North side of Dripping Springs Rd. Through an ancient mining law (repealed or replaced about six months after they started operations), the operators were allowed to buy the land from the BLM in 2005 for $2.50 an acre to continue mining. They got 24 acres north of the road and 16 south of it. The southern portion is immediately below Tortugas Mountain.

DASG asked the Extraterritorial Zoning Authority (“ETA”) to rezone the northern portion to formally recognize the mining. (The ETA decides such issues, after receiving recommendations from the Extraterritorial Zoning Commission (“ETZ”). DASG asked to rezone the southern portion commercial.

For many reasons, commercial was a bad idea there. It would have been disharmonious with existing properties and leases, including the recreation area and the Pilgrimage. The road wouldn't support the additional traffic (with folks turning off the narrow road to get a hamburger) and the morass of conflicting right-of-way claims made it unlikely the City or County could widen the road as would be required. A commercial installation wouldn't be the best neighbor to NM Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, with its animals and with lots of kids and tourists coming to a museum that honors rural New Mexico. With obesity a national epidemic, fast-food joints adjacent to high schools aren't a great idea. Residents of Golf Estates, Talavera, and Las Alturas neighborhoods were also strongly opposed. The proposed customers of businesses on the site said “No!” in droves.

In 2013, staff initially recommended denying the commercial zoning request. The ETZ voted 5-1 to recommend approval. The ETA upheld rezoning the northern portion for mining, but rejected commercial zoning by 4-0. ETA urged staff to come up with something appropriate. 

More recently, staff presented the ETZ with a request for commercial zoning that differed slightly from the original request. Again there was vigorous and varied opposition. The ETZ reached a 3-3 tie vote, thus denying the request.

The three who favored the request each said, essentially, that they couldn't interfere with landowners' rights to do what they want with their land. If they mean that, they don't understand their jobs as commissioners. True, landowners' rights are one priority; but zoning decisions are precisely about when and how the public interest trumps them. Under what circumstances and to what extent should we (or can we, legally) restrict land uses?

Here, it's possible the commercial zoning could constitute illegal spot-zoning. (Staff says it wouldn't because it's technically “new zoning” not “rezoning.” Even if that argument proved technically valid, the policies against spot-zoning would still apply.)

Since one requirement for the commercial zoning sought was demonstrated need for a commercial zone, the passionate opposition of nearby residents and Recreation Area users tended to negate a required showing. 

The overwhelming community opposition, the inconsistency with surrounding land uses, and numerous other factors establish a community interest in keeping this area free of commercial activity.

Often such factors are subordinated to the interests of landowners who've invested heavily in the land and have legitimate expectations of profit.

Here, the landowners were essentially given the land because they were mining there. 

That doesn't mean they can never develop it and have no interest in making a huge profit; but it does mean there are not strong “equities” weighing against the clear community interest and possible illegality of the requested zoning. The ETA should zone the land for gravel-mining now, and let the landowners seek a rezoning at some later point. 

Of course, I hope the land south of Dripping Springs is not mined, and remains undeveloped, perhaps through a purchase by some public or conservation-minded entity.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 29 June.
[The next event in this saga will be an ETA meeting set for July 16th at 5:30 p.m. in the County Commission Chambers at 845 Motel Blvd.  I'd urge folks who feel strongly about this issue  to (a) write the ETA in care of Steve Meadows, [] by July 9, (b) come and say your piece on July 16th, or both.  (I suggested writing by July 9th.  On July 11, the Friday before the meeting, they put together the packets for the ETA members.  A letter or email received before then will be in the packet.  A later-received communication will also be in the file somewhere, I think; but better to beat the deadline, and help give staff an extra day or two to put things together.)  You should not, however, try to discuss the matter individually with city councilors or county commissioners you happen to know, as they're supposed not to discuss this "quasi-judicial" issue informally in private.]

Monday, June 23, 2014

County Staff Prepare "Findings" ETZ Commissioners Never Found

The Extra-Territorial Zoning Commission (“ETZ”) recently considered an effort to develop some land just below Tortugas Mountain. There were many good reasons to deny the request. Staff asked the ETZ to approve it. Many citizens wrote the ETZ or voiced their opposition at the meeting. The ETZ rejected a motion to approve staff's proposal. Three Commissioners spoke against it, and the motion failed on a 3-3 vote.

Staff appealed to the Extra-Territorial Authority (“ETA”). (The ETA is three county commissioners and three city councilors.)

Legally, staff can appeal, but some ETZ Commissioners wondered about the propriety of staff appealing the decision of a board appointed by the City and County.

Far more questionable was the written “Order” staff created.

Staff had argued, and other speakers rebutted, several points, including whether or not the zoning request met Comprehensive Plan objectives. Three commissioners rejected staff's arguments, yet certain of staff's arguments showed up as ETZ “findings” in the Order. Some “findings” contradicted what the prevailing side had said out loud at the hearing.

Some ETZ Commissioners aren't happy.

Because the ETZ doesn't meet often, staff often leaves just the signature page of an Order on a specific ETZ desk. “They took advantage of the fact that we often have to sign things on the fly. They routinely pressure people to sign things on the fly,” said ETZ Commissioner Douglas Hoffman. “It's never resulted in this kind of thing. As citizen-representatives, we rely on staff to faithfully carry out the Commission's findings.” Another commissioner described himself as “quite unhappy” and suggested there's a pattern of pushing things through without time for necessary input. He called staff's appeal “completely unique.”

It looks a bit dishonest to load an Order's “findings” with stuff the ETZ not only didn't find but didn't agree with.

Citizens argued (as did a petition signed by users of the Tortugas Recreation Area) that development would be inconsistent with surrounding land uses. So did the Tigua, who hold a lease to make an annual pilgrimage to the top of the mountain. So did the nearest residential neighbors. Every speaker, except the property owners’ paid engineer, opposed allowing a Planned Commercial Development at the base of Tortugas. Commissioner Hoffman specifically mentioned that development would interfere in some measure with the pilgrimages. Commissioner Sanders mentioned that the park was a transition area in which development to the extent that staff recommended would be inappropriate.
Nevertheless, staff wrote into the “findings” that “The proposed EC-3c zoning district would compliment [sic] this [neighboring] activity.” The ETZ found no such thing.

Should the commissioners have insisted on seeing the entire document, rather than relying on staff to faithfully record the proceedings? That's not the usual procedure. I'd think a commissioner could fairly expect at least that staff wouldn't quietly insert “findings” that contradicted the ETZ's position.
Suppose a staff member wrote into a businessperson's contract or a politician's speech material that the staff member wanted to say but knew the boss didn't agree with? How long would s/he have that job?

Many bosses trust staff to finalize documents. Many of us who've bought or sold a house have trusted a realtor on many details, and relied on that realtor's assurance that the document reflected our discussions. Is realtor or staff justified in taking advantage of a relationship of trust?

When I called County Community Development Director Daniel Hortert he said that the statements in the Order were not findings and not required by law. He later conceded they were findings, but reiterated that they're not required and said they're more trouble than they're worth.

The so-called findings he called “perfectly fine. It's not going to change.” He didn't challenge the view that the findings weren't the facts at least three of the Commissioners based their opinion on and that some even contradicted statements by the prevailing side.

He argued that the ETA would not pay attention to the findings but would hear testimony de novo then make up its own mind. That might be, but I suggested he include a note telling the ETA that the supposed “ETZ Findings” were never found by the ETZ.

County Commission candidate Beth Bardwell says the “findings” aren't so unimportant. “If I were on the ETA, that would be the first thing I'd look at, as a concise summary of the issues as the ETZ saw them.” She also pointed out that while the ETA would make up its own mind, if someone appealed to District Court a judge might be misled into viewing the findings as summarizing the ETZ's view.
Concerned citizens can hope the ETA Commissioners will read the Sun-News, although County Legal might object to that as an ex parte communication.

The ETA hears the case at 5:30, July 16th, in the County Commission chambers at 845 N. Motel Blvd. If you have an opinion, you're free to appear and voice it. Your voice could matter.

[I should have posted this yesterday, but was up in the wilderness, too delightfully far from cell-phones and Internet work.  The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on Sunday, 22 June.]
[If time permits, I may write a second column on the substantive issues in the case discussed above; in addition, the incident raises the more general issue of whether things are done with appropriate planning or just done.  I do know that staff put a lot into the proposal rejected by the ETZ.  What I don't understand is why, after the ETA unanimously rejected a fairly similar proposal last year and the ETZ (which had recommended approval of the earlier version 5-1) defeated this in a 3-3 vote), staff is pushing so hard, instead of accepting the obvious alternative of zoning the South side of the road as the ETA did the North, for the gravel-mining the owners got the land for $2.50 per acre to do. ]

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Pegasus Flies Again ? Well, maybe.

Like some unnatural Hollywood monster, the inaptly named Pegasus Project has arisen from the dead to beguile our City Councilors, County Commissioners, and Important People again.

It's an incredibly neat idea: a realistic fake town, unpopulated, to facilitate all sorts of studies and experiments.

The same folks started pushing this deal here in 2012.

Eventually the showmen settled on Hobbs. Around June 1 Pegasian executives were “on the ground in Hobbs to prepare for the June 29 groundbreaking” – but on July 13 they stole away in the middle of the night.

They lacked the guts or grace even to tell Hobbs civic leaders they were leaving. Kind of like golfer Rory McIlroy telling tennis champ Caroline Wozniacki their engagement was over – on a cell-phone call so short she hung up thinking he was joking. Except the Pegasians didn't even have that much gumption.

The Hobbs folks learned the facts from the evening news. The excuse given – like the excuses given for the ends of most affairs – didn't seem to hold up. They claimed vaguely “some very complicated and unforeseen issues with acquiring the land.” But they reportedly hadn't even talked to their friends and allies in Hobbs about trying to resolve the purported late-blooming problem.

My instinct when someone walks away with such a flimsy excuse after claiming to be weeks from ground-breaking is that the funding wasn't quite there. Maybe someone reneged on something. Maybe the “We're breaking ground this month!” story was a wild shot at getting the rest of the funding they needed. If you're serious about that June 29 groundbreaking, you make more of an effort to solve a last-minute problem; but if you were blowing smoke in hopes of pulling the financing together, the last-minute problem might be pretty convenient. (Folks in Hobbs read the tea leaves the same way.)

Unless there's a real good explanation – and these folks declined to explain it to me back then – no one over 12 should extend himself or herself very far to facilitate the game this time.

Probably these people are again nowhere near having the funds for this thing. They likely hope to use their activities here to help generate funding. That's fine, so long as they're thoroughly truthful with investors. But one danger in the modern world is that if things go South, disappointed investors will sue everyone in sight. If these promoters stray beyond the truth a little, and we're complicit or even seem to be, we could end up paying a settlement to some plaintiff or class of plaintiffs for helping make this show look ready-for-prime-time when it wasn't.

Is the whole thing a scam? I don't know. But if I were a local official I'd have a long, candid talk with my peers in Hobbs, and ask some tough questions of the promoters. (Actually, I was reassured to learn today that this conversation has happened.) I'd also stick strictly to doing my job, and not make the least public statement that could be taken out of context and painted as more than I meant it to be.

More generally, New Mexico politicians chase after companies the way Nepalese villagers scramble to steer a visitor to their brother-in-law's hotel; but few politicians attempt the harder tasks that might create an infrastructure and a quality of life and education that might make someone want to move a business here.

Many business want an educated work-force prepared to do challenging work; but improving education takes too much money and creativity.

Marriage equality is essential for most modern corporations, so they can bring or hire the best people, not just the best straight people; but many business interests scoffed when our local officials expressing support for marriage equality in New Mexico. Quality of life matters, yet the Chamber of Commerce opposed the Monument, which was a tangible step to improve the quality of life here.

I think the Pegasus “town” is a great idea, assuming it's no environmental problem. If it were here, drawing into town all sorts of interesting studies and programs, that'd be a fine development for Doña Ana County. But these guys acted like asses in Hobbs. They spoke confidently of breaking ground within weeks. They showed they lack manners and maybe veracity. Any public official should ask these folks a boatload of questions.

In fact, despite whatever the Pegasians released, they've apparently not contacted the City of Las Cruces yet. City Manager Robert Garza says that when he read the news story he asked city staff whether anyone had been contacted, and everyone answered in the negative.

Meanwhile Mayor Ken Miyagashima was quoted as hoping that just as the San Fernando Valley became “Silicon Valley” the Mesilla Valley could become “High-Tech Valley”; but his high-tech smart-phone could have told him Silicon Valley, surrounding Palo Alto, is eight hours' drive North of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley.
[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 15 June, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  Interestingly, it exemplifies the fact that my views as a columnist don't necessarily represent the newspaper's views, since (coincidentally) the Sun-News had  editorialized concerning Pegasus  earlier this week.  
In fact, though, I agree with most of the editorial.  While the editorial is far more favorable and my column far more negative, we agree that (a) it's a very interesting idea, wherever you put it, and (b) it would probably be a good thing for the County if they put it here, including its likelihood of drawing in other interesting people and projects.    The newspaper made the point that so long as it isn't costing the City or County anything, let's root for it; and I agree.   
I'd just add the caveat, as discussed above, that the evidence tends to lead a reasonable observer to question whether the financing will be there, in this economy, for such an interesting idea, and whether or not the folks organizing it are folks I'd be in a big hurry to trust.  Both are questions, not answers; I hope both funding and trust develop.  (Again, I'm assuming for now that there wouldn't be significant environmental/ecological problems flowing from building the new "town.")
So I'll be interested to see what develops -- and open to hearing facts that might expand my view on the subject, if local officials or Pegasus reps ever choose to share 'em.]
[My further point was that our leaders tend to salivate at the most modest indication a business might move here, but don't spend enough time (a) helping local endeavors develop and (b) creating the conditions a business might like to see here, such as a strong educational system, quality of life, equality, etc.  That's more important, and deserves exposition by someone better prepared than I to opine on business development.]