Referendum means nothing to city commission

It looks like the Truth or Consequences City Commission will again learn nothing from a referendum that should clue them in that they are not listening to or doing right by their citizens.

The city commission nearly replicated the ordinance and non-transparent process used in 2017 that was also put to referendum and voted down. No reflection, no correction, no better communication with the people the second time around.

Just as in 2017 the city commission skipped over any due diligence or planning or financial analysis that most cities present to its citizens to persuade them to take on more tax-paid debt for a generation or more.

The city commission didn’t ask or show whether the people should or could take on more debt for a police building, while at the same time declaring a state of emergency over the massive waterline leaks.

No comparison of costs or benefits were made to determine if the current building, old armory building, other building should or could be upgraded or if a new building should or could be built.

No discussion of the city’s financial capacity for and priority of other capital projects were even mentioned.

Just as in 2017, the city commission passed an ordinance that was a vague financial scheme that gave no details on the capital project. A “public safety” building would be acquired using gross receipts taxes to pay off a principal debt of $4.5 million, with interest and debt-life undetermined.

Voted down a second time, it looks as if the city commission will still learn nothing.

During the March 27 city commission meeting, Ron Fenn, who led the 2017 and March 19 referendums, was scapegoated for his comments on the results of the special election.

Fenn said the vote showed that the “community is divided.” He went on to say that Chief of Police Luis Tavizon “should thank me for saving his GRT,” which is obnoxious, but a true result of the election and touches on one of the many possible reasons people voted against the measure.

In 2011 the city commission passed a .25-percent gross receipts tax that was supposed to be used for officer retention and recruitment to provide higher pay than surrounding areas. Chief Patrick Gallagher at the time had data and evidence to support the contention that better pay would stop the city’s high officer turnover, as well as the cycle of attracting only non-certified officers who left after the city paid to have them trained. There is no evidence that the city has used the .25 percent GRT for this purpose. Last fiscal year the city commission passed a budget that transferred over $900,000 out of the “public safety” GRT to balance deficit spending in the general fund. This fiscal year the city commission has used the .25 GRT to pay for prisoners’ care and costs. Yet the city commission claims it supports the police and that the .25 GRT can’t be used for water projects since it is earmarked for the police.

Fenn pointed out that the city police still have a recruitment, retention and non-certification problem. He said 42 officers have left the department from 2016 to present day, including five chiefs of police. Of the 18 police officers currently on staff, five are uncertified, Fenn said.

Mayor Rolf Hechler responded to Fenn’s remarks; “Our community is not divided. One issue can’t divide us. We have lots of positive things going on in this community.” Ignore, dismiss, delete.

“You can tell by his [Fenn’s] rhetoric that he is anti-police,” Hechler said.

Hechler and the other city commissioners similarly reduced the multiple issues of the $4.5-million bond issue to a slogan: support the police. Ergo, voting against the measure is anti-police.

Could citizens have voted down the measure because it was insufficiently vetted or communicated? They wanted the money spent on waterline emergencies? They want the GRT to go to officer retention and recruitment? The ordinance language didn’t match what the city commission said (state and local GRT, not just the .25 percent would be used to pay off the debt for a public safety building, not a police station, and the city’s debt to the New Mexico Finance Authority would all be paid from the $4.5 million bond)?

Hechler said the city will pursue grants to build a police building, evidently deciding this on his own, despite supposedly having no individual power to make decisions. A grant should have been pursued from the get go to at least leverage the .25 percent GRT. Of course any state or federal agency will insist on architectural and engineering plans and cost estimates as part of the grant application. The city commission wouldn’t expect “support the police” to be sufficient, nor would they assume the government agency is anti-police if the city doesn’t get the grant.

Forrister also refuted that the community is divided, minimizing the message and political impact of the 1,030 people who voted in the election as “only 29 percent” of the electorate. There were 3,523 ballots mailed out (it was an mail-in-ballot election), the total number of registered voters, according to the county clerk’s office. For the November election, which included city-commissioner seats, Forrister’s among them, there were 4,083 registered voters of which 1,046 voted. Evidently the voter rolls has been updated or purged of 560 voters in the intervening four and a half months. Nevertheless, the voter turnout percentage was only 25.6 percent in November 2023 and the number of voters is very similar. The special election had better voter turnout than Forrister’s own election, yet she disregards possible lessons to be learned from the people’s check of the city commissions’ power.

About two months ago Forrister responded to a citizen’s claim that city commissioners don’t listen. “You’re crazy if you think we aren’t talking to the people who voted for us,” she said. This explains Forrister’s lack of regard for the general electorate. She doesn’t represent all of the people, only those who voted for her, with whom she communicates behind closed doors.

She referred to Fenn as “CAVER-Fenn.” Forrister said last month “I’m so sick of CAVERs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).” This insult was coined by a previous city commissioner more than ten years ago and Forrister gleefully carries on the tradition of scapegoating and blaming citizens who criticize their government for all its problems.

“You want to know why people move away? Look in the mirror,” Forrister said, referring to Fenn and probably to me for writing articles such as this one.

It couldn’t be the broken water pipes, the skyrocketing utility fees, the 30 percent poverty rate, the lack of jobs, the poor school performance, the toxic positivity the city commission imposes in place of leadership? The city has lost 2 percent of its population on average each year from 2000 to 2020 according to the U.S. Census.

City Commissioner Merry Jo Fahl said we should all be grateful for the police “and all they do,” thanking Chief Luis Tavizon for the improvements he’s made to the department.

Tavizon minimized Fenn’s turnover figures, claiming that officer retention and hiring and certification are
“problems everywhere.”

Fahl and the other city commissioners have only expressed thanks, gratitude and praise to any and all city workers. The city commission is supposed to be the legislative check and balance on the executive branch, which is composed of city workers. Never have they made city department heads report, nor held them accountable. This lack of fiduciary oversight was exemplified by Tavizon being able to initiate the financial scheme to renovate the old armory building behind closed doors, hiring financial and other experts using the public purse and never presenting the capital project to the city commission or the public for approval.

City staff over citizens, non-transparent government, no planning, no decisions based on evidence gathering and fact finding. More positivity, sloganeering and scapegoating will be applied instead of governance.

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Kathleen Sloan
Kathleen Sloan

Kathleen Sloan has been a local-government reporter for 17 years, covering counties and cities in three states—New Mexico, Iowa and Florida. She has also covered the arts for various publications in Virginia, New Mexico and Iowa. Sloan worked for the Truth or Consequences Herald newspaper from 2006 to 2013; it closed December 2019. She returned to T or C in 2019 and founded the online newspaper, the Sierra County Sun, with Diana Tittle taking the helm as editor during the last year and a half of operation. The Sun closed December 2021, concurrent with Sloan retiring. SierraCountySun.org is still an open website, with hundreds of past articles still available. Sloan is now a board member of the not-for-profit organization, the Sierra County Public-Interest Journalism Project, which supported the Sun and is currently sponsoring the Sierra County Citizen, another free and open website. Sloan is volunteering as a citizen journalist, covering the T or C beat. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.

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4 Comments

  1. What a hoot! My father always said that people get the government they deserve because if you don’t like who is in office then run for office yourself. Don’t want to run because you don’t like the abuse? Well, life is like that when you try to manage any herd of cats. Get scratched a lot.

    On the other hand, there seems to be a rather shallow pool of experienced and educated citizens looking to be city commissioners and managers possibly because T or C is a declining town with a diminishing population. Looks like most of the bright young people leave for better opportunities and many of those that remain fill the crime blotter in the newspaper. Oops, another issue about which we are not to speak, the failure of the education of many of the young people.

    From what can I see living out in the bush, the only group with ability and positive plans that have a chance of reaching fruition is the real estate group from Staten Island that has been buying up many of the businesses and homes in Sierra County. Perhaps some of these people will choose to live here and will put effort in dragging T or C into the first world so they can have reliable public safety, water, sewerage, electricity, etc for their enterprises and then provide opportunities to keep more young people here, but then many would lament the loss of the quaint charm of our area and the increase in the cost of homes and rental real estate. Can’t please everybody.
    God Bless us all….

  2. Thank you for your hard work and perserverence in keeping us informed. It is much appreciated !

    Citizens are expected to have opinions on issues and decisions that affect their lives. To demean an individual, or a group, for having a different opinion from your own is unacceptable.

    Elected officials represent ALL residents, and are accountable to ALL residents, not just the ones who voted for them or who agree with them.

  3. Thanks to Ms Sloan for the excellent article and kudos to Ron Fenn for standing up to the city council yet again.

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