By Jack King: CNJ staff writer
Curry County Commissioner Ed Perales has demanded in writing that County Manager Geneva Cooper stop publicly endorsing the re-election of District 2 Commissioner Pete Hulder.
Cooper refused Perales’ request, also in writing.
Both sides called the other’s letter “threatening.”
The exchange of letters was prompted by paid advertisements in the Clovis News Journal in which endorsements for Hulder were listed, including endorsements from commissioners Kathrynn Tate, Albin Smith and “Geneva Cooper, County Manager.”
Some county residents — including District 2 Commission candidate Carol Nichols — charged Wednesday that Cooper violated the county’s personnel policy when she endorsed a candidate. Perales and Commissioner Tim Ashley said they had received calls complaining about the alleged infraction and were looking into them.
Perales’ letter, obtained from the county, said Cooper’s action violated Section C, item 1 of the personnel ordinance, which forbids county employees from using their official authority or influence to interfere with or affect a nomination for office.
“You are hereby directed to immediately cease any public endorsement of any Curry County Commission candidate in your official capacity as Curry County Manager,” Perales’ letter reads.
“Please contact Commissioner Hulder (and any other Curry County Commissioner you are supporting) and ask that he remove your name from any further political advertisements concerning his campaign,” it adds.
Perales’ objection to Cooper’s endorsement is that, “She’s got five bosses and I’m supposed to be one of them,” he said Thursday. “She’s got five bosses and she’s supposed to treat all of them equally.”
Cooper replied to Perales’ letter through her attorney, Warren F. Frost, of Tucumcari.
“Geneva Cooper has a First Amendment right to participate in the electoral process, which includes supporting any candidate she chooses. Your attempts to prohibit her from exercising those rights by using your position to threaten to take action against her for supporting Pete Hulder is not only inappropriate but is illegal,” Frost’s letter to Perales reads.
“Any further attempt on your part to retaliate against Ms. Cooper for the exercise of her First Amendement rights will be swiftly met by a Federal Civil Rights lawsuit naming her as defendant,” it adds.
Cooper confirmed that she had refused Perales’ demands.
“He demanded an explanation,” she said, “and I decided I need to get my own attorney and have him explain.”
“I’ve had two attorneys now tell me I have the right to support the candidate of my choice,” Cooper added, referring to a conversation she had Tuesday with Curry County Attorney Steve Doerr, as well as with Frost.
Perales said he’s not trying to retaliate against Cooper as her attorney claimed.
“I’ve never threatened her; I’ve acted as a commissioner,” he said. “I’ve got a lawyer, too. But, I haven’t had my lawyer fax her threatening letters.”
Hulder said Thursday he thinks Cooper felt threatened by Perales’ letter.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that a county commissioner would take unilateral action against the county manager without consulting the other commissioners. I believe that’s inappropriate,” he added.
Ashley said he hadn’t read the letters and couldn’t comment on them, but that he believes Cooper’s action violates the personnel policy.
“The personnel policy is clear that a county employee can’t endorse a candidate, despite what the county attorney said. To try to interpret it otherwise is to stretch the wording of the policy,” he said.
“I have two concerns. One, I feel the action is in violation of the policy. Two, if it’s not in violation, why do we have an ambiguous personnel policy?” he said.
Reached late Thursday evening, Commissioner Kathrynn Tate said she believes Perales’ letter implies Cooper is endorsing Hulder to get a salary increase.
“I don’t agree with Commissioner Perales’ implication,” she said. “Her salary is subject to the same conditions that apply to the other employees.”
Perales could not be reached late Thursday to reply.
Cooper said she supports Hulder because of his dedication.
“I think Commissioner Hulder spends 20 hours a week on county business. He really studies the issues and he’s always very well prepared,” she said.