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Doña Ana County Sheriff needs authority to run her office

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Walt Rubel
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Commentary: Back in the days when former Sheriff Kiki Vigil was constantly fighting with former County Manager Julia Brown, I thought it was just a personality clash between two strong-willed leaders acting a bit like children.

But, now that current Sheriff Kim Stewart is constantly fighting with current County Manager Fernando Macias, I’m starting to think that this isn’t just about personalities, and that conflict is baked into the system.

The latest clash involves the county manager’s new back-to-work edict. Macias has demanded that sheriff’s officers be treated like all other county employees, and return to working from the office. Those who do not will lose either vacation time or pay.

During a recent press conference, Stewart argued that law enforcement officers are not like other county employees. She said that her deputies have responded to five COVID-19 deaths in just the last few weeks, exposing them to the virus.

And, officers are exposed to the virus every day when interacting with the public, making COVID-19 the top cause of death among all law enforcement officers since the start of the pandemic, Stewart said. She said 17 of her officers have tested positive since Oct. 31.

It should be obvious that the consequences of a widespread outbreak in the sheriff’s office or fire department would be much more dire than if one were to occur in the county accounting department.

County rules would appear to give the county manager authority to tell the sheriff how to run that office. And, they clearly give the County Commission the authority to deny adequate funding for the office.

That’s a problem. When Vigil first came into office, he was justifiably outraged at the shoddy, broken-down equipment he inherited - patrol cars with more than 250,00 miles on them and radios that could only work in parts of the county.

Stewart has clashed with Macias since her first day in office. She wanted to change the duties of her second-in-command to fit a new management system she intended to put in place. Macias quashed that.

They have also squabbled over Stewart’s ability to negotiate contracts and issue promotions. In 2019 she filed a complaint against Macias alleging violations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.

The sheriff is elected by a full vote of all county residents in what is typically one of the most well-covered and closely followed of all the county races. County commissioners are only elected by the residents in their districts, and the county manager isn’t elected at all. Our current system gives all the power to those who are least directly accountable to the voters.

Voters expect the sheriff to be a well-trained law enforcement officer who has experienced the challenges deputies face while on patrol; understands the different needs of each community and neighborhood in the county; and is well versed on latest trends and reforms taking place throughout the country.

And they expect the sheriff to be able to do the job without meddling from those who are not trained in law enforcement.

The County Commission can fix this. They need to reign in the county manager and let the sheriff do her job.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.