Sunday, April 20, 2014

What Did Last Week's Election Teach Us?


What did we learn from the thunderous rejection of Doña Ana Soil & Water Conservation District's (“S&W's”) try for a tax hike and $350,000 a year?

S&W, a sort of state agency, set a special election for April 8, anticipating maybe 400-500 voters. (Not S&W's fault that this was a special election, there's a state statute we should amend) Many questioned whether the group, which spends most of its time passing fatuous resolutions concerning things irrelevant to its mission (such as immigration and U.N. Agenda 21), would actually use the money properly; and we wondered how a group so insistent on antagonizing other government agencies would manage the necessary cooperation with those agencies to get anything done.

To some extent, the vote became a mini-referendum on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument proposal, which S&W vigorously opposes. The 85% vote confirmed again that the Monument proposal is extremely popular. People cared enough to turn out for a one-question vote. Some, including my wife and me, waited an hour and a half to vote. One friend suggested I write a column about “white voters getting to experience what black voters do in elections, humongous lines at polling places.”

The wait wasn't as bad as it might have been. People maintained a sense of humor and made new friends. (We waited with Susan Reidel, Republican candidate for A.G., and her son, a DASO Deputy, and had a pleasant chat, mostly staying off politics.) But the wait was long. We saw several people approach Good Sam's, notice the long line, and beat a hasty retreat. (Kudos to Deputy County Clerk Mario Jimenez for sending some folks with water bottles to keep us alive to vote.)

The entire controversy left me with a bunch of questions and ideas. One question was who paid the tab for the cost of a special election. (S&W) Also, S&W's penny-pinching gave us just five polling places, and resulting long lines.

A weightier question concerns the S&W argument that the enhanced budget was necessary to deal with the urgent problem of outmoded dams, some built decades ago to protect farmland and now standing above communities.

The question is simple: everyone's politics aside, how much truth was there in that argument? Which dams most urgently need fixing or replacing? In some cases, is there a more ecologically-friendly alternative that would be as effective as (or more so than) rebuilt dams? Are there practical, lower-cost solutions to some of these problems? And where there's a real need for a new dam, where do we get the funds?

I'd like to learn the answers to some of these questions, since I regularly comment on the local scene. I'm not having second thoughts about advocating a “No” vote April 8; but I do feel as if folks of good will ought to communicate clearly concerning the situation and try to find common ground.

One thing some of us learned, and others already knew from their experience elsewhere in New Mexico or other states, is that there many S&W's make real and beneficial contributions to their communities.

Could a recharged S&W, with some new blood and representing more points of view, be useful here? I'd like to look into that. Water is the key issue for folks like us who live in a desert. The present drought will only make it more so.

I'd like to spend some time with the S&W and EBID folks. Sure, I think they sometimes talk a lot of rot, as they undoubtedly think I do; but some, at least at EBID, have some real knowledge, and some of the S&W people represent ranchers. Ranching is important not only to our economy (though less so than some ranchers claim), but also to our culture, history, and identity. I've met many ranchers who are good stewards of the land. In an increasingly plastic world, folks who do what they do are a precious and endangered resource. I know ranching practices and environmental concerns sometimes get in each other's way; but I suspect that a significant amount of the animus between ranchers and environmentalists could and should be avoided. (That's one reason Joe Delk's raging at “the environmental cartels” he sees as trying to push his “powerful and graceful God” out of our culture is so unhelpful.)

It'd be sweet if everyone's ideologies and prejudices took a back seat to a community effort to get some things right.

Maybe we could have a functional S&W. Even without much money, it could do some good, if it brought people together and solved problems creatively. (Brad Lancaster's talk on water harvesting, two nights after the vote, was like a punctuation mark emphasizing “by the way, there might be some solutions here we've overlooked.”)

Such a group might someday ask for more funding, but only after showing it deserved that funding and would make good use of the public's money – and trust.
                                                                -30-
[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, April 20th.  Coincidentally, Opinion Page Editor Walt Rubel had decided to write his own Sunday column the same subject.   Some will recall that the Sun-News editorialized in favor of the ballot measure, and I strongly opposed itYet another column in this morning's paper is County Clerk Lynn Ellins's guest column on the election from the point of view of the folks who had to help run it with the financial and other constraints the Soil & Water Conservation District had.  County Clerk's office deserves a lot of credit for making the best of a bad situation -- not the opprobrium heaped on it by frustrated voters who didn't understand the relative roles of the S&W folks and the Clerk. ]
["What's Walt thinking?" a friend emailed me this morning.  I think Walt and I agree more than we disagree, in the sense that we each think decision-makers should understand the situation, identify any urgent flood-protection needs, and try desperately to deal with those -- although we're also each aware that it's a common view among local officials that it could take $500 million to fix all the problems, and no one has any idea where to procure anything close to that amount.
Where we differ is that in Walt's desperate concern to avoid flooding, he imagines that Mr. Delk, who misspent the District's time and small budget on fatuous resolutions, sharing in on a study to find some ground to criticize the BLM, and whatever else, would suddenly make wiser and more effective use of $350,000.  Why would we assume that?  I'd like to share your faith, Walt; but the evidence suggests otherwise. 
I also have concerns that the folks who'd be advising Mr. Delk and his Board might be too committed to their own strategy and constituency, at the expense of better solutions.  I hope to learn that's not true.  But it's a reasonable concern.
Finally, as the column suggests, I want to make it a priority to learn more about this subject.  I want to take a fair and objective look at it -- and (if I learn anything useful) voice further views to readers and local officials.] 


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Officials and Mental-Health Advocates Query Hospital's Plans


Not everyone's admitting that there was a quick and decisive battle between Memorial Medical Center (MMC), and the City, the County, and some concerned citizens.

According to several sources, MMC closed its psych ward and sought to reject at least one mentally troubled individual whom police brought in for evaluation. Police, following normal procedure by taking the fellow to MMC, declined to take no for an answer.

Tuesday, MMC Marketing Director Mandy Leatherwood completely denied that the hospital had closed the unit, tried to close it, or told anyone it was being closed; that the hospital had refused or tried to refuse anyone service; and that nurses had been transferred from the psych ward.

But non-hospital sources say MMC advised the police April 1 that the psych services were ending. On that date MMC's contract with psychiatrist Dr. Ernest Flores expired. Flores had been overseeing the ward. The two sides have different views on why a new contract could not be worked out.

Mental health advocates were livid. One said the closure made no sense, because even without Dr. Ernest Flores there were other options: Mesilla Valley Hospital, which specializes in mental health, could have done the work under a temporary contract; or UNM or Las Vegas could have sent a team down here temporarily.

Ron Gurley said that the folks leasing the hospital had never wanted the obligation to deal with mental health problems, had tried at the last-minute to get that requirement removed from the lease, and might now be looking for a way out. “To use a basketball analogy, we need to keep a full-court press on them,” he remarked, adding that there were additional “curmudgeons standing by.”

“I see this as a public health, public safety catastrophe waiting to happen,” County Commissioner Wayne Hancock commented, adding that “this calls for us to get this crisis triage center up and running quicker than we ever anticipated.”

What apparently happened (despite MMC's refusal to talk about it) is that when the Flores contract expired, with no replacement for him, MMC transferred some staff and tried to avoid performing mental health assessments or treatment. Reportedly police brought one unidentified psychotic individual to the E.R., as usual, but the E.R. doctor initially refused to take him. The police didn't back down. The E.R. doctor did, and the patient was assessed and shipped to Mesilla Valley Hospital.

City and County lawyers huddled over the lease and pointed out that it was questionable whether MMC could close the facility at all, and that it was absolutely clear MMC had to give 30-days' notice if it wanted to try.

Both City Manager Robert Garza and County Manager Julia Brown reportedly urged MMC to back off on the closure. One public official says that their message to MMC was, “You guys can't do that” and added, “It's explicit in the lease that MMC will continue to provide mental health services.”

Under that pressure, MMC backed off and conceded its obligation. (One source said that the concession occurred on Friday afternoon.) MMC is reportedly negotiating a contract with Mesilla Valley.

I asked Garza why MMC couldn't have prepared a contingency plan involving Mesilla Valley, or even a temporary team from UNM or Las Vegas. He said that MMC had told him it was surprised by the failure to come to an agreement, and had thought it had a reasonable solution with Dr. Flores. When I called Flores, he was reluctant to discuss the negotiations but said that he and another doctor had provided what they thought was a reasonable proposal, giving MMC two months' notice plus another two weeks, and was surprised when there was no counter proposal. He also said he'd suggested a deal with Mesilla Valley as a solution.

One official said that although service was cut off, MMC was not just turning people away without assessing them. The hospital was essentially referring potential psych patients to Mesilla Valley Hospital – e.g., telling the apparently mentally ill person s/he should go there and where it was – and that “We're telling them that's not enough.”

Although MMC says nothing notable happened, the incident raises a number of questions.

Are critics correct that MMC is looking for an excuse to get out of the commitment to provide psych services under its lease? (Psych services are notably not as profitable as, say, cardiac services.) Are they also right that MMC is in trouble, and those who run it may be looking for someone to sublet or assign their lease?

At a minimum, the incident reminds folks like me, who remember the Hospital from before it moved up to Telshor, that what was a hospital is, as one of its executives used to say, “a quasi-public hospital,” and that the emphasis has moved to the word “quasi.” Public officials tended to be candid and forthcoming about this incident. The quasi-public MMC reminded us it's there to make a profit, not primarily to serve.
                                                                -30-
[The above column appeared this morning in the Las Cruces Sun-News. ]
[ Meanwhile, it was a busy week, in ways related to a couple of past and future columns.
On Tuesday, county voters resoundingly defeated a proposal for a tax to fund the
Doña Ana Soil & Water Conservation District.  An earlier column had advocated just that result; but we learned during the discussion how valuable an entity a soil & water conservation district could be if it were actually dedicated to thoughtful and imaginative steps toward conservation.  A future column, perhaps next week, will discuss what I think we learned -- and express my resolve to learn more than I now know about the subject.  Simply patting ourselves on the back over this vote, and forgetting again that soil and conservation districts exist, would be wrong.
On Thursday we had to complete our correspondence to the Extra-Territorial Zoning Commission regarding the proposal to zone the area right beneath Tortugas Mountain commercial -- despite the inappropriateness and possible illegality of such zoning.  The mountain has cultural and religious significance and is used by two different tribes from Tortugas for pilgrimages, and the recreation center there is incredibly well-used by hikers, bikers, and picnickers who don't want to be looking down at a nearby McDonald's or Sonic.  There are no similarly-zoned parcels adjacent to this one; the school is quietly not very happy about potential fast-food eateries nearby, the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum would prefer the land not be used for activities that disturb its animals or detract from the attractiveness of the museum to visitors, neighbors don't want the noise or excess traffic and lights, and that extra traffic could even pose not just delays but dangers, with students speeding to and from the high school.   The ETZ will meet on this next Thursday at 6 at the County Commission Chambers at 845 Motel Blvd.  Public input is part of the procedure.
Thursday night, Brad Lancaster spoke.  The event exceeded our fondest hopes.  Brad gave a great talk -- insightful yet fun -- and we were delighted that so many local citizens (and folks from El Paso and Silver City) cared enough to spend the evening hearing about water harvesting, compost, and other practical and sometimes creative ways to make the best use of what we have.   Credit City Councilors (including Miguel Silva and Gill Sorg) for helping arrange the venue, Brad for reducing his usual fee, Jeff Anderson and the Master Gardeners for coming up with the money to pay that reduced fee, and my wife, Dael, for indefatigable efforts both to get the word out and to help arm Brad with specific local facts about our county's climate, rainfall, water usage, and the like.  People who attended walked away inspired and grateful.  I was glad to have been able to help make it happen.]










Sunday, April 6, 2014

Further Thoughts on DASO


I'm still investigating the DASO problems I discussed in two columns several weeks ago.

I've done a few things.

First, I have repeatedly asked Sheriff Todd Garrison, and his new Chief of Staff, Rick Seeberger, to email DASO employees stating that they may speak honestly to me without fear of reprisals. That's what the New Mexico Whistleblowers Act promises, so reprisals would be illegal anyway. Shouldn't we air issues voluntarily, rather than pay for the County to defend costly employee lawsuits later? Still, they've sent no such email. They've not even replied that they will or won't do it.

Second, I filed a public records request. In my view the Sheriff and County haven't fully complied with it.

There are certain emails I haven't yet seen, but that appears to be more a misunderstanding than anyone hiding anything.

There are also complaints that were made against Rick Seeberger, before he was a County employee arguably entitled to confidentiality under the personnel exemption. I contend those employee complaints are public records. County lawyers apparently disagree. I've asked that they respond, either agreeing or explaining their position. I've suggested they compromise by producing these records with sensitive information (employees' identities) redacted. And I've urged them to supply a list of withheld documents, identified sufficiently for someone to determine their basic nature and the basis on which they're withholding each.

County lawyers haven't deigned to reply to informal requests, so I'll send them a letter with a deadline, hoping they respond. Under the law, if I must file a lawsuit forcing compliance, the County could end up paying $100 a day plus my legal fees. I hope the County complies voluntarily.

Third, I've continued to listen to what people who work for Sheriff Garrison tell me. Sometimes DASO employees I don't know just appear beside me somewhere and quietly thank me for shining a light on these matters. Others speak at more length. Of others, I hear second-hand that they would like to voice their concerns to me.

It's my strong impression that for at least some employees Mr. Seeberger is the boss from hell. There are signs that Garrison and Seeberger have seriously damaged DASO morale. As one employee remarked, “It breaks my heart, because there are some very fine officers in the Department.”

And I've been working my way through the documents the County has produced.

Those documents tend to corroborate that in hiring Mr. Seeberger the County didn't give him the scrutiny they'd give a trainee. I also have questions about some of his responses to the written questionnaire he filled out.

An anonymous complaint alleges, “Employees have voiced their concern about Seeberger and have been moved to menial positions.” The new organization chart shows that some formerly major figures in the department have been moved off to the side. Garrison says that's because they're needed to work on the departments' accreditation.

But the main sense I get from the documents is that we have paid too much for something we may not have needed.

The County paid Mr. Seeberger $30,000 or more for training before he was an employee. That “training” also cost extensive lost employee time, with people paid to attend sessions and travel to and from Mr. Seeberger's compound near the El Paso border. Was the total cost $50,000? More?

The training concerned playing well with others, being a good manager, reading people better, and the like – not how to use new weapons or ensure everyone's safety when arriving at a possible crime scene. Reviewing the training materials, I see some good stuff, but a lot of fluff. I see obvious observations about human interactions, maybe worth a short lecture. I see material that seems to use important-sounding names, slogans, and categories to make concepts look so complex that you need continuing help from an expert to master them.

I saw a “Personality Test” of the sort you can find free online. We paid the Seebergers $25 apiece for the tests, and probably something for interpreting results. One DASO officer described taking much the same test online, free, with the same interpretation we paid Mr. Seeberger for.

Let me be clear: this isn't about Mr. Seeberger, although I doubt his contribution as a management and organizational consultant warranted paying $30,000 or $50,000. then hiring Seeberger to do more of the same. (Did he fail as a trainer or are our employees kind of slow?)

This is on Sheriff Garrison. Seeberger's doing what he does, perhaps with the best intentions. It's Garrison who's wasting our money on more of Mr. Seeberger's services than we might have needed. Distracted from their basic duties, officers are spending too much time reporting to Mr. Seeberger regarding the continuing “reorganization.” Sadly, they're looking over their shoulders, uncertain whom to trust.

Maybe the Sheriff could begin restoring trust by assuring DASO employees that they may speak honestly, without fear of the kind of retaliation the NM Whistleblowers Act forbids.
                                                               -30-
[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 6 April, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rainwater Harvesting Expert Brad Lancaster to Speak in Las Cruces

Water.

We drink it. We need it. We eat plants and animals that can't live without it. And we know potable water is scarce and will soon be scarcer.

Almost every previous civilization faced with drought has practiced some form of rainwater harvesting. Ours really hasn't.

On April 10th , Brad Lancaster will visit Las Cruces. Mr. Lancaster has studied the world's water-harvesting practices and experimented extensively with them. His desert home resembles, in Gary Nabhan's words, “a walk-through encyclopedia” of the world's water-harvesting methods. He's advised Tucson and other municipalities how to apply some of these methods.

His talk here will be free, thanks to the Doña Ana County Master Gardeners and the Las Cruces City Council. He speaks at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 10th at the Rio Grande Theater. (Doors open at 6:30. Mr. Lancaster will mingle with guests until his presentation, then stay to answer questions and sell books afterward.)

Water is way too important to leave to politicians and corporations. We should each learn what we can about harvesting it, using it, and conserving it. Many of the methods that Lancaster will discuss (and explains in more detail in his books) we could each employ, without a big budget or extensive technical knowledge. Others, such as greywater and stormwater harvesting, we should demand our city or county employ.

The key is to gather as much as possible of the rainwater we do get, so as to use it as long as possible.

That may sound goofy in Las Cruces, where rain's a rarity.

But Tucson's pretty similar, with annual rainfall under 12 inches.

Twenty years ago Brad and his brother began to harvest rain from the roof of their home on 1/8th of an acre in Tucson. They now harvest rainwater on that urban lot and an adjoining right-of-way.

How much fresh water can you acquire that way? Couldn't be much. But wait: would you believe 100,000 gallons annually?

According to the USGS website, the average person uses 80-100 gallons per day – 29,200 to 36,500 gallons per year.

Brad's 100,000 gallons is enough for three people, including water for their shade trees. One Saturday they illegally cut through a small concrete curb protecting their land from water running down the street. They let the water in. They shaped the land to hold it there. They shared this secret with the whole neighborhood, Dunbar Springs. Now Dunbar Springs harvests two acre feet of water a year – enough to cover two acres with water a foot high.

Diverting the water helps increase the density of trees, and thus the availability of shade (and fruit from the trees). Trees help increase rainfall. Diminishing the amount of water on the roads reduces potholes.

Rainwater's not only free, it's far better for plants than groundwater, which grows increasingly salty and brackish as we drill more and more deeply into our underground supply.

We require just a small mental adjustment: instead of engineering ways to get water to flow away, let some of it stay and make itself useful. As Lancaster says, “It's insane that we're spending all these resources bringing inferior water to this place when we have a much higher quality, salt-free water falling from the sky.”

This ain't a Progressive Voters' Alliance vs. the Tea Party issue. Thinking folks of all political complexion should agree. Doesn't matter whether you're harvesting rainwater because it saves on your water bill, because you don't like paying the government for water, because you figure climate change will deepen the drought, or because you want to treat your vegetables and trees to better-quality water. It's just common sense.

In 1995, soon after Brad started harvesting, he traveled through southern Zimbabwe. Hearing of a man who farmed water, he went to the country's driest region. He found the water farmer in a very simple office, reading a Bible.

Zephaniah Phiri took Brad to his farm. He had been fired from his railway job in 1964, for political activity against Rhodesia's white-minority government. They said he'd never work again. To support his family of eight, he turned to his overgrazed and eroding seven-acres – and to the Bible. Inspired to create a Garden of Eden, but lacking the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, he set out to recreate their abundance from storm runoff.

Over a 30-year period, he created a sustainable system in which rainwater now provides all his water needs. His 7.4 acre farm provides abundant food and fruit.

One chapter in Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond describes Mr. Phiri's work (and, with practical tips and diagrams, the eight principles applicable to all water-harvesting sites). Mr. Phiri says, of land like ours where rain falls fast and leaves fast, “When there are thunderstorms, soil and water try to elope together and run away from my land. It is my job to persuade them to settle down here and raise a family.”

If his books are any indication, Brad's talk should be lively, practical, and interesting.

                                                    -30-
[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 30 March, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  Again, the talk is at 7 p.m. Thursday April 10, at the Rio Grande Theater.  Doors open at 6:30, and Brad will mingle with early arrivals.  He'll also answer questions afterward, sell books, sign books, and chat.]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vote "No" on April 8


Mark April 8th on your calendar.

That day you can vote on whether you want to pay $10 or $20 extra in taxes to provide $350,000 annually to fund a group of extremists who write useless letters and resolutions.

Dona Ana Soil and Water Conservation District (“S&W”), has set a special election on a proposal that S&W receive about $9.2 cents per thousand dollars net assessed value on each home. If your house's assessed value is $150,000, you'd pay $13.84.

You probably have no idea what S&W does.

Despite its name S&W opposes most every conservation proposal they hear about, including the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument proposal.

Remember the crazy idea to create a pipeline to divert water from the Gila River to Deming? Even the legislator who suggested this admitted that he just wanted to scare people into thinking seriously about water. No one intended to build the pipeline; but S&W voted unanimously to support it – although it would cost a boatload of money, destroy the Gila River, and accomplish very little.
S&W even passed a resolution opposing U.N. Agenda 21.

I first heard of Agenda 21 when someone wrote asking how soon the City would herd people into high-rise residences and confiscate their four-wheel-drive vehicles because of Agenda 21. Wondering what the fuss was about, I read Agenda 21. It's a well-intentioned paper favoring a healthier world and less poverty. Nothing it recommends is mandatory, but some folks fear that local governments are cutting secret deals with the U.N. to steal our freedoms.

Tuesday evening fewer than 25 citizens attended S&W's “open house.” Attendees asked for a budget or coherent plan for how the money would be used. S&W had neither.

Citizens also questioned the group's extremist politics. S&W Chairman Joe Delk was repeatedly asked to explain some of his positions, or at least assure the audience that S&W would concentrate on productive work, not spend public money on political posturing. He gave no such assurance.

Boardmember Jennifer Shoup, said Agenda 21 was being “imposed on us.” Reminded that Agenda 21 is voluntary, she replied that local groups were adopting some of its goals, such as “smart growth and sustainability.”

Delk spoke vaguely about what S&W would do with the money. He's written far more eloquently about how conservation districts can be a vital force in the battle between solid Christians and the “environmental cartels.”

Delk writes he is “a child of a living and all-powerful and graceful God,” while “environmental cartels” seek “to elevate a secular spiritualism while suppressing and diminishing the presence and importance of Christian men and women,” and conservation districts “are a bastion of conservative leaders . . . and may also be the key to our future.”

Tuesday evening's presentation featured a representative of the Upper Hondo Conservation District. Her knowledge and professionalism highlighted the failings of the local group. She discussed cooperating with other agencies on real projects. Mr. Delk seems more interested in an epic battle between his version of Christianity and our secular society.

One example: in his haste to oppose the BLM last year, Delk may have broken New Mexico's open-meetings law. BLM was considering a Tri-County Plan. Public comment period was to end September 16. On July 13, over one objection, Delk declared “an emergency” to hold a meeting on shortened notice to approve contributing $2,000 for an expert to determine how to attack the Plan. The “emergency” allowed him to escape certain requirements of the law. 
 
Delk did this not because of any specific objection, but because “there's no telling what's hidden in the nooks and crannies of the words therein.” Was this legally an emergency? Subsection F of the Open Meetings Law states “an 'emergency' refers to unforeseen circumstances that, if not addressed immediately by the public body, will likely result in injury or damage to persons or property or substantial financial loss to the public body.
[NOTE: after deadline for this column, I believe this matter was reported to the Third Judicial District Attoney.]

The City and County already have mil levies for flood control. A local leader said later that since S&W apparently has the right to work on private property, which the City and County can't, “They don't need a bunch of money. All they have to do is stop their political ranting and be cooperative with entities that already exist. It's a shame they isolate themselves that way.”


I was heartened to hear Delk mention “rainwater harvesting.” 

But I don't want to be taxed an extra $15 next year to fund this group, unless and until they show more true interest in conservation and less of an obsession with ideology. 

S&W's charge is to help us better manage our natural resources. 

Speaking of practical ways to do that, a leading expert on rainwater harvesting, Brad Lancaster, will speak Thursday, April 10, at 7 pm. at the Rio Grande Theater. Admission is free. We hope anyone within driving distance attends, including Delk and his fellow board-members. Politics aside, we all need practical information on preserving our most precious resource.
                                                             -30-

[The column above appeared in this morning's Las Cruces Sun-News.  There's lot's more to say on this matter -- including why writing this column saddened me.
A part of the real story is the fact that our modern society threatens to marginalize and eventually destroy ranching.   No one feels that more than the ranchers.   It also matters to me.   Part of the conflict between environmentalists and ranchers is probably inevitable; but part of it isn't, and I think that to some degree ranchers who reflexively resist conservation and preservation measures are focusing on the wrong enemy.   I also feel troubled when environmentalists fail to give fair weight to the human and societal values of ranching.  I'd rather see these groups communicate better, compromise, and even work together on possible common concerns.

Having said that, I want to add additional material here, partly because the April 8th vote is imminent and partly to offer readers of the column access to some of the basic documents and materials I reviewed in writing it.
Thus I want to add not only URL's but a further analysis of the open-meetings -- and procurement law -- concerns raised by Mr. Delk's conduct of a meeting last July.  

Some URL's

Here is the actual link to the 7/31/13 Minutes in which Mr. Delk concedes that the only way to hold the meeting on such short notice is to call it an “emergency:”

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGFzd2NkLm9yZ3x3d3d8Z3g6NDg3ZjhmNjI5YmI0NDZjZA


Here's the link to Mr. Delk's extended comment on “environmental cartels” from which we quote in the column:http://thewesterner.blogspot.com/2012/10/joe-delk-presentation.html 

Here's Dona Ana Soil & Water District's website, for it's point of view on these matters.



The July 13, 2013 Meeting

This affair warrants a more formal investigation than mine for two reasons: (a) Mr. Delk appears to have willfully misused  the "emergency" exception to evade clear Open Meetings Act requirements; and (b) since the meeting resulted in a decision to spend $2,000 of public funds, query whether proper procurement procedures were followed.

First of all, was the whole thing completely unnecessary?   BLM was involved in a complex process of creating, taking public comment on, and reworking a Tri-County Plan.   The S&W board-members had the opportunity to review it and comment, as did we all.  They apparently had no specific faults to find with it, but suspected that if they looked deeper they might find some. 
Public comment was to end in mid-September.  Two months in advance, Mr. Delk (and, apparently, some other organizations, reportedly including EBID) wanted to fund an expert to review the plan and draft comments for S&C and the others to voice.)
Mr. Delk called an Emergency Meeting to approve contributing $2,000 to paying the expert.  The minutes to this meeting leave no doubt that he knew his action was legally questionable:
1. Another person present stated her disagreement with him that this was an "emergency" under applicable law, and Mr. Delk responded that he would take the hit for it if anyone asked;
2. Mr. Delk stated that "Time was of the essence in this matter, so the only way to call a meeting on this short of notice was to make it an emergency meeting," according to the minutes, which continue, "NMDA SWCD Specialist Tiffany Rivera did not agree, but Joe said he was willing to take the hits should this be questioned."
3. The "emergency" nature of the meeting meant that only a few board-members were present.  Several, such as Steve Wilmeth, were absent, and thus not involved in the possible violation.
4. As noted in the column, the law defines "emergency" quite clearly as: "unforeseen circumstances that, if not addressed immediately by the public body, will likely result in injury or damage to persons or property or substantial financial loss to the public body.
   * Since the BLM procedures were well-publicized, one wonders what the "unforeseen circumstances" could have been;
   * What was the "likely  injury or damage" that would have resulted from the slight delay needed to comply with law?  
   * Why did Mr. Delk not articulate the "likely injury or damage" and why those would occur if this problem were "not addressed immediately" by S&W?
I'm not a prosecutor.  I do think an appropriate authority should ask Mr. Delk those questions, because if he hasn't got satisfactory answers, he may well be guilty of a crime.  I hope District Attorney Mark D'Antonio will pursue this.  

Whether or not the foregoing establishes a violation of law, it show pretty clearly Mr. Delk's priorities and his lack of regard for the law.  He wanted $2,000 in public funds to go to creating some opposing comments to the BLM, and they $2,000 went to that purpose.



The Bottom Line
Soil and Water Conservation Districts in other states, and even elsewhere in New Mexico, can be functioning entities that actually help conserve water and soil.   The representative of Upper Hondo's SWCD at Tuesday's meeting was not only knowledgeable and eloquent, she was clearly a deep believer in the mission of SWCD's.
Ranchers definitely should be a significant voice on an SWCD, though not the only one.
So why wouldn't we vote for this mil levy and hope that the Dona Ana SWCD would turn to its actual mission and perform that mission appropriately?
City residents likely wouldn't do so, because they already pay for flood control and the SWCD's work would be wholly or mostly outside Las Cruces.   The Dona Ana folks presumably could have exempted the city from the levy, as Upper Hondo's SWCD did with municipalities there.  City residents may not wish to be double-taxed.
County residents also pay something for flood control.  They may wonder why our SWCD can't just work with the county.
Above all, though, the evidence just seems to point against optimism regarding the SWCD.   What do their meeting minutes and resolutions show about their priorities?  So far, that they are preoccupied with extremist, anti-governmental politics and have had little to say on immediate issues.  (Spending a significant part of their small budget on creating some opposition to the BLM Plan might have been indicative.)  They're up in arms about Agenda 21 and grey wolves; they show more interest in attacking other governmental groups than in finding ways to cooperate to conserve; and while they have plenty of resolutions regarding their political views, we see few resolutions encouraging rain harvesting, keeping the soil clean from contaminants, or other conservation measures.
 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Weed's View of the "Positivity Garden"

Greg Smith's recent commentary on “Tending a garden of positives: weeding out all the negatives” reminded me of three things.

One was a sign I bought a friend when we were working on a trial: “It doesn't matter how fast you drive if you don't know where you're going.”

Another was the historical incident at the start of the book Longitude.

Before we had a reliable way to determine longitude, navigation at sea was a challenge. Because a difference of opinion could lead to mutiny, the Brits made it illegal for anyone but the Captain and the Navigator even to attempt to keep track of the ship's position.

On one occasion, when the Navigator said to turn north, a sailor spoke up. He said they were well east of where the Navigator thought they were, and that if they turned North immediately they would soon run aground.

He must have believed what he said, since he knew that the penalty for keeping his own calculations was hanging, which sentence was carried out before sunset. The ship had already turned north. Early that morning it ran smack into the islands the sailor had mentioned. Almost all hands were lost, but the Captain survived long enough to crawl up onto the beach and lie there until a woman scavenging in the wreckage spotted his expensive watch and killed him.

Regrettably, Greg takes folks to task for disagreeing with him about Spaceport America and a plaza in Downtown Las Cruces. He defines the opposition as “negativity.” He implies that it's negativity for the sake of negativity, referring to “the negativity campaign” and “their overbearing negativity.” He more than implies we should simply ignore the naysayers, writing, “To ignore them is to deny them the inroads they desperately seek to establish” and that ignoring them can “contribute to the quality of life enjoyed here.”

For the record, I don't yet know enough to take a firm position on either. Regarding Spaceport America, I'm a bit of a skeptic. I thought Bob Hearn – whom I don't think of as particularly negative – raised some serious issues. When we discussed them on radio, I thought the gentleman rebutting him exuded complete confidence and provided some good answers. I'd have been interested in further discussion to hear Bob's rebuttals to those answers.

On the plaza, I'd very much like to see one, though since I'm not a city councilor I haven't weighed the costs against other municipal expenses. I think that if done right (a significant “if”) it would provide value to the community more than the financial calculations alone might suggest. It's something I think we should do, unless the costs are absurd; but I worry we'd make it too glitzy, too plastic, too perfect, too something. It can't be a plaza full of history; but neither should it feel false.

My real concern with Greg's commentary goes to the abstract concept: that negativity (defined as disagreeing with the mayor pro tem?) is inherently valueless or counter-productive. (I like and respect Greg, and doubt he meant to sound as if he wanted to squelch dissent.)

Marine navigation aside, naysayers can raise important questions we sometimes lose sight of in our haste to reach whatever we think the goal is.

Granted, some people will find the negative in anything. Granted, there will always be some citizens who define a successful city counsel meeting as one in which they got to take some real good shots at someone in power. Granted, some people will take even the most absurd position if their particular political party espouses it. (But it probably lacks grace for the mayor pro tem to say these things.)

But Bob Hearn is not that sort of citizen, and his questions about Spaceport America (which he said were designed to get people thinking about the matter, not to state a conclusion they should reach) were non-frivolous. Recent resignations by the some of the key players in Virgin Galactic may also be meaningful – or may not.

We have spent plenty of taxpayers' money on a bold gamble. I hope it pays off. But it remains a gamble so far. For citizens to question it seems pretty reasonable to me.

The argument that “Well, we're doing it, so all these questions just gum up the works” could be a good one in certain circumstances. More often it actually betrays the uncertainty of the persons speaking so confidently. If public questions or criticisms can harm the Spaceport America effort, then that effort is probably doomed anyway.

Maybe I hear Greg's words with the jaundiced ears of a columnist. Too often people make me aware of serious problems, though their jobs could be at risk if anyone knew we'd talked. Authorities tell me that everything's fine and criticisms just make people nervous. Then I dig deeper and find the problems are real.

Finally, the third thing Greg's “garden” analogy reminded me of was the well-known saying among gardeners that there are no weeds, just plants that happen to be growing where we don't want them.

                                                                    -30-
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, under the perhaps unfortunate title "Is City Driving Fast toward an Unknown Destination."  Although the headline is a snappy and clever reference to an anecdote in the column, which is good, it may give the impression that I was criticizing a bunch of recent decisions by the City Council.  I wasn't.  I was gently poking fun at a column by the Mayor Pro Tem that I felt was a little heavy-handed.   For the most part, I think the current city councilors, including Greg Smith, are fine people doing a fine job.
My point was and is that dissenting views and criticism have a legitimate, even an important place in democratic government.  Yeah, it's unfortunate that some folks criticize merely to criticize, or merely to hear themselves talk.  Sure, that can be frustrating to folks trying to run a city or a county.  But doesn't it kind of come with the territory?  Isn't that particularly so when the subjects are well-intentioned expenditures of large amounts of our money toward interesting goals one could reasonably doubt we'll ever reach?]



Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger


I still can't see why Richard J. Seeberger should be Chief of Staff in the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department. He's never been a cop or a deputy. He has a few semesters of college. If he has unique or magical “leadership” secrets to impart to our deputies, he could be a temporary consultant.

Sheriff Todd Garrison says Seeberger doesn't command anyone; but when every soul in the department knows Seeberger has extraordinary control over Garrison, Seeberger commands them. Questions I asked Garison in a meeting often got answered by Seeberger. When Garrison started to answer, Seeberger often interrupted and answered for him. Nor was my experience unique.

Why Garrison genuflects to Seeberger isn't clear. He and the County hired Seeberger without normal background checks – or he pressed HR to ignore that background.

Garrison says Seeberger can re-focus the department and instill “leadership” and communication skills Garrison has long wanted to instill. Others guess maybe Garrison has, or has been led to believe he has, a post-DASO career with Seeberger's consulting business. Seeberger says, “That's not true.”

Seeberger suggested I read The Journey, a book he co-wrote with his wife and self-published in 2012. (When I picked up the book I had to sign and date an acknowledgment that I'd received it from him.)
He said it showed their life journey to where they are now, and said it illustrated how they'd learned from their mistakes. I thought it might be . . . well, I hoped maybe . . . a come-to-Jesus confession of sin and redemption and genuine change and growth.

But the “mistakes” mostly involve trusting others who prove untrustworthy. So far, there's no hint that the Seebergers were ever really at fault for anything. There are allegations of fraud and betrayal against many people and businesses, most unnamed.

Their history includes two personal bankruptcies, some corporate bankruptcies, and plenty of lawsuits. Seeberger says he himself is currently involved in five lawsuits.

Most folks never sue anyone, unless it's over a car accident. I've personally had a few situations where misunderstandings or bad luck could have led to litigation, but we settled on a liveable compromise. I've never sued anyone personally. I've occasionally threatened to sue if something wasn't changed, but either it was changed or we compromised.

Asked about their many lawsuits, Seeberger says that “When you teach integrity, as I do, and you have individuals who attack you in that area, there's really only one choice you have. You have to stand up and defend your integrity.”

Or does he use corporate structures to evade paying people what he might owe them in an ethical sense? An adversary who Seeberger admits has a $200,000 judgment against his 20-20 Leadership Foundation, Inc. is suing Seeberger personally, alleging fraudulent transfer of assets. Is Seeberger's conduct legal? A judge or jury will eventually decide. (The Seebergers' book explains that such luminaries as Mark Twain, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Donald Trump each went bankrupt.)

KVIA did some advertising for one of the Seebergers' entities, Build a Stronger Future. (BASF, which DASO is in contract with, is technically owned by Seeberger's wife, and in a flyer they proudly announce it's “100% woman-owned.) When KVIA sued to get paid the $20,000 it was owed, BASF counter-sued for $1 million. Seeberger says KVIA never proved it ran the advertising, and his wife's corporation got zero hits on its website from the advertising. Again, courts will decide the matter.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Mott appears tired of the Seebergers. They filed their second personal bankruptcy and were discharged in 2007. They re-opened the bankruptcy in 2008 and were discharged again. They asked again in 2009, saying they now wanted to sue Bank of America, and Judge Mott permitted that. They lost. Then they asked again in September 2012, “suggesting possible mistakes by their prior counsel years ago during their bankruptcy case in connection with an entiry called ORSA Institute LLC.” Mott told 'em to go away. He wrote, “[A] debtor does not have eternal access to federal court for all alleged disputes related in some way to a bankruptcy case that has been closed for several years.” He had already dismissed the Seebergers' efforts to use bankruptcy with ORSA Institute, with Seeberger's agreement. “Now, the Seebergers want to try yet again and create another litigation platform in this Court for alleged disputes by reopening this very old Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. Simply put, enough is enough.”

One chapter in The Journey describes “entitlers.” Entitlers feel entitled to everything.  They “do not want to take personal responsibility . . . it is always someone else's fault they lost something.” “They clog our courts with frivolous lawsuits.”

I feel bad about writing all this. I had coffee with Seeberger Wednesday, and he's an affable, intelligent fellow who projects a strong belief in what he's doing. But so far, what I've learned remains troubling.

The situation troubles DASO employees, County Commissioners, and the public. I'm pretty sure even the HR Department is embarrassed and annoyed that they didn't or couldn't oppose Garrison, an elected official, on this one.

I've requested relevant documents. I'll try to attend a training session. I may write a third column about this; and there's further information on my blog.

But I'm with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Mott: “Simply put, enough is enough.”
A good leader knows when to step away.

[Three corrections from previous column: Mr. Seeberger gave the PTA in L.A. “an unsigned check” rather than “a worthless promissory note” (although the L.A. Times reported both); he has sold no EduKits to DASO; and DASO is paying him a little less than had been reported.]
                                                                         -30-
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 9 March; and the newspaper also editorialized on the subject on Friday, 7 March.   (I did not contribute to the editorial.)]

[It seems as if people inside and outside DASO question the Sheriff's action in creating the Chief of Staff position specially for Seeberger and placing Seeberger in it without advertising the position at all.

Seeberger is a smart fellow, and can be personable.  He is said to have skills in teaching management, leadership, organization, and the like.   He's done it for years, and in the past couple of days a couple of former clients told me recently that they were satisfied with their dealings with him (though one added that a former associate whom Mr. Seeberger has blamed for some problems, Ronald Woods, was a better trainer than Seeberger.).  Saturday Mr. Seeberger sent me copies of people's rave reviews of him at one-day "Value-Based Leadership and Managing Change" workshops he and his wife have put on at the City of El Paso Supervisory Academy four times during the last 12 months or so. If he were conducting an occasional training session with DASO, maybe no one (except people who complained that he mixed religion in) would be complaining seriously. 

But he's never been a cop or a sheriff.  Or a patrolman or deputy sheriff.

There also seem to be more than a few people who trusted him or invested with him and didn't make out very well.  That doesn't mean he's dishonest.  He may just be overly optimistic, and spend his (and perhaps others') money in ways that just don't pan out. He may have run into a lot of bad luck.
These facts, plus a couple of complaints about him, raised questions.

As often happens, the response to those questions raised more questions.  Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger have insisted he actually doesn't order anyone around.   Others disagree.  As I stated in the column, I doubt anyone's actively disobeying Mr. Seeberger, when everyone sees the hoops Garrison has jumped through for him.  Further, I suspect that once I see departmental emails, one subject of my IPRA request, we may find that Seeberger does tell people what to do on occasion. 

Mr. Seeberger insisted the other day that Sheriff Garrison didn't make Seeberger's training sessions, conducted as a consultant before this Chief of Staff business, mandatory.  Then he retreated to saying, "Sheriff Garrison can answer this but certain training within any organization is mandatory."   I think that when the evidence becomes available it may show that Sheriff Garrison told people they had better attend if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger insist that everyone in DASO is completely on board with what they're doing except "a very few malcontents."  I'm not convinced.  I'm curious.  I've heard the department has been "fractured" by all this.  Mr. Seeberger gave me a list of five persons he said where wholly on board.  I've sought the Sheriff's permission to speak freely with those and the rest of the command staff, on a strictly confidential basis, with the Sheriff guaranteeing that folks who talk with me won't be retaliated against.   It will be interesting to see whether he will do that -- or hide behind the fact that he has no legal obligation to do it and the fiction that those who work in DASO do not have reason to fear possible retaliation.  

What's next?  There's said to be an investigation going on by an outside agency.  County Manager Julia Brown confirmed Friday that it hasn't been completed.   I don't even know precisely what aspect(s) of the situation the agency is investigating.  I've heard informally that additional complaints have been made, concerning Mr. Seeberger's conduct as a DASO chief of staff, but I have no idea what may happen with those -- or what should happen.