County leaders still in dark on earning trust

Freedom New Mexico

It’s been nearly three months since Curry County voters overwhelmingly rejected grandiose plans to build a $33 million judicial complex. Yet recent actions tell observers our county leaders have no clue about how to instill public trust in their decision-making on these important projects.

A few weeks ago a hopeful sign surfaced when the county commissioners called for volunteers to serve on two citizen committees and advise them on other ways to resolve concerns that range from overcrowding to safety in the jail and courthouse.

However, hope dimmed with the announcement. The commissioners had handcuffed the panelists from being remotely independent by declaring they had to meet in secret. They said to meet in public meant there wouldn’t be full-fledged discussion.

Isn’t that goofy thinking? You can only speak the plain truth in private, when taxpayers can’t hear the ideas or what is said about them. You can only engage in civil discourse if we don’t hear you.

Most committee members in the last week or so correctly rejected that good-old-boy decree. They walked away after a meeting or two, citing the lack of transparency. They knew what the commissioners refuse to accept: You don’t restore public trust in the dark.

We suggest the commissioners declare they made a mistake and start over. They should declare all committee meetings open, refill the vacancies or rebuild the committees entirely, and task them to think fully.

Yes, the commission legally can close committee meetings. But they were slapped down by voters by a 73-27 percent margin in November over these buildings. Smart politicians know you don’t toss your legal weight around with your bosses on hot-button topics. Political cover, if any was left, evaporates.

If they won’t open and rebuild the committees, the committee members who remain must demand autonomy to explore all options and with appropriate time to hear all ideas fully, at public meetings.

We would like to see the committees explore:

• Why Curry County’s jail is so full. Architects have said we house more inmates per capita than any other New Mexico county. Is that because the terms for release prior to trial — or bond amounts — are unreasonable? Even for inmates charged with non-violent misdemeanors?

How can we move inmates to state prisons faster? Are drug abusers being jailed when they and taxpayers would benefit more with rehabilitation? Why can’t low-risk inmates who can’t make bond be monitored electronically off premises, freeing up jail bunks for more worthy offenders?

• Would taxpayers benefit from the county getting out of most of the jail business? Yes, we know the commissioners are adamant they don’t want to “send jobs to Texas.” It is a false

argument. We will always need a jail for some people. But a nearby facility can do the same thing. If many jail services go elsewhere, what will we save on utilities, meals, medical care, payroll and benefits? Could some employees be freed up to do other needed work, or could we improve more roads and medians?

• Can Curry County’s administrative offices be moved from the courthouse and still provide needed services and reduce risk? Commissioners and judges say the 70-year-old courthouse is dangerous. Law-abiding staff and citizens doing routine business there cross paths with violent felons traveling to and from the courtrooms. What grisly historical evidence supports the claim?

Courthouse and jail committee members have looked at the county-owned downtown post office to see if it might hold the administration and other county offices, and limit courthouse traffic to those with court business. The separation would allow for more strict security. If the Gidding Street building proves too small, the panelists should look at other buildings that might work.

And they should do their work in the open. Trust won’t build if the commissioners insist on staying in the dark. Thinking any other way is intellectual theft, and a sign of weak leadership.