Commentary: The Doña Ana County Commission needs to schedule a work session with other elected officials – Sheriff, Clerk, Treasurer, and Assessor – concerning a key problem.
A city's comptroller and police chief aren't elected. The U.S. President appoints the FBI Director and U.S. Treasurer, with the Senate's “advice and consent.” If you and I were assigned to create an effective local government, we'd likely not fill so many positions through elections.
Elected county officials are a vestige of New Mexico history, for better or worse. That creates problems; and problems, like carpets, need to be aired out now and then. Beaten with a broom, maybe. Neither averting one's eyes nor manipulating the ambiguities to grab power is helpful.
There are grey areas regarding how county manager and elected officials work together. Voters elect a clerk or treasurer or sheriff based on his or her reputation and ideas; each enters office intent on doing a good job; but in certain areas – notably human resources, purchasing, and the legal – the elected official's power and discretion is limited. That naturally creates conflicts.
How we view those conflicts can depend on the elected official. Some who supported Kim Stewart's request for a big raise for Undersheriff Jaime Quesada would have lost their breakfasts on the commission-chamber carpet if Kiki Vigil had obtained commission approval of a similar raise for Undersheriff Ken Roberts. Kiki objected violently to county interference with his personnel decisions; but what sane observer wasn't relieved that the County managed to sack Sheriff Todd Garrison's pal, Rick Seeberger. (Full disclosure: Seeberger sued everyone in sight, including me; the U.S. District Court eventually took his money, not defendants'.)
Some of what goes on would be comical if it didn't waste our money and our county government's energy. The County needs to avoid paying gobs of our money to unqualified cronies of elected officials; but maybe when officials need to retain a genuinely valuable employee, HR should work with them more flexibly.
County Manager Fernando Macias would undoubtedly say he acts to preserve the County's funds and ethical rules. Some folks in other departments see some of his actions as “a power grab” and resent both the content and the manner of those actions.
I'm neutral, but I'd urge the County Commission to look at this and either figure out the rules or make some. Some rules seem familiar. For example, the elected official can name his or her chief deputy; but is that person's compensation fixed by the official, the county manager, the commission, or some combination?
Where there are actual rules, let's publish them. Where there are unwritten rules, let's find out where they came from and decide whether or not to retain them. What kinds of contracts involving elected officials' departments must be blessed by the County Commission, and why? Should the Law Department's legal review of contracts be limited to changes that are clearly required by law or clear practical concerns? (The contract for Magistrate Court security is a great example of how things shouldn't work. Even two-year-olds – or cats – could have done better!)
Finally, this process should involve the Law Department; but the discussion should also include questions to the Attorney General, where appropriate, and the commission should hear from other lawyers and former officials familiar with the problem. We need an open discussion – open to the public and open to creative ideas.