The Torrance County Board of County Commissioners met on February 22, 2023. During this meeting, the two commissioners, Ryan Schwebach (Chair, District 2) and Kevin McCall (Vice Chair, District 1; the District 3 chair remains vacant since the death of Commission member LeRoy Candelaria on December 22, 2022), addressed the following matters:
- public comment regarding election conspiracy theories;
- appointment of a representative to the EMWT (Estancia, Moriarty, Willard, and Torrance County) Regional Water Association Board of Directors;
- a Pattern Energy application for an alternative special use district boundary;
- using restrictive housing at the county jail;
- the County Fiscal Year 2022 Audit Report;
- seeking hardship funding through the New Mexico Department of Transportation;
- a resolution allowing the county to enter into a settlement agreement with companies named as defendants in opioid litigation joined in by the county;
- awarding a construction contract to B&R Construction Co., Inc., for remodeling the county road department buildings;
- payment of long-overdue invoices for the county domestic violence program; and,
- approval of funding for county DWI and traffic safety programs.
EMWT Regional Water Association
In 2014, representatives of Torrance County, Moriarty, Willard, and Estancia founded the EMWT Regional Water Association. These representatives named Ronnie Reynolds as the registered agent for the association at the time of its founding. The communities that founded the EMWT Regional Water Association appoint people as members of the board of directors of the association, where they will serve four-year terms. There are no term limits for members of the board of directors of the EMWT Regional Water Association. Reynolds has served on the board of directors for the past four years as the representative for Estancia, with his term having expired in 2022. Commissioner McCall recommended that Reynolds be appointed to the board of directors, this time as a representative for Torrance County. Schwebach agreed, and the commission brought Reynolds back to the EMWT Regional Water Association board of directors. (I also discussed Reynolds in a recent article regarding the February 21, 2023 meeting of the Mountainair Town Council.)
Public Comment Regarding Election Conspiracy Theories
Sandy Ness and Robert Wagner made public comments during the county commission meeting. Ness, who described herself as a “voting commissioner” (neither the role nor Ness is mentioned anywhere on the county website, the New Mexico Secretary of State website, or the Federal Election Commission website) spoke on her theories regarding the 2020 election. Ness expressed she believed in the Dominion voting machine conspiracy. See Christina A. Cassidy, Explainer: Voting Systems Reliable Despite Conspiracies, AP News (Oct. 04, 2022) and see Alan Feuer, Trump Campaign Knew Lawyers’ Voting Machine Claims Were Baseless, Memo Shows, New York Times (Sep. 21, 2021). Ness said she believed that the State of New Mexico would make it a crime to question elections.
There are 166 pieces of legislation that mention elections in the current legislative session; only House Bill 04 has legislation criminalizing conduct related to elections, however that bill criminalizes the misuse of personally identifiable election data, such as voting history and residential addresses, intended to stop the misuse of such data for marketing. House Bill 4 is currently in front of the New Mexico Senate.
Robert Wagner, who described himself as the chairperson of the Libertarian Party, said he supported Ness’ comments. Wagner is not listed anywhere on the website of the New Mexico Libertarian Party or on the social media for the Torrance County Libertarian Party. However, Wagner is named as a Libertarian Party chairperson in a Las Cruces Sun News article on false election claims. Wagner claimed that “if there weren’t issues with these voting systems, our governments wouldn’t try to make it less transparent for us….”
Zoning and Pattern Energy’s Request for an Alternative Special Use District Boundary
Pattern Energy operates wind farms and electrical transmission lines in the area, and is seeking an “Alternative Special Use District Boundary,” by all appearances a variance to current zoning districts. Don Goen, Torrence County Director of Planning and Zoning, stated he supported Pattern Energy’s application for the boundary. Goen said that Pattern was preparing construction on its wind farm and transmission lines, and would be done with construction in 2026. Goen said the Pattern application for the boundary was at the Planning and Zoning offices, available for inspection by residents. The Commissioners approved Pattern Energy’s application.
County Manager Report regarding Restrictive Housing
The County Manager, Janice Barela, reported to the Commissioners regarding the use of restrictive housing measures at the county jail portion of CoreCivic’s private detention facility. Barela stated that this report was not for public review; therefore, the exact meaning of “restrictive housing measures” as used in the report was not defined. Presumably, this refers to the use of segregated housing units (so-called “SHUs”) or some other form of solitary confinement. The Commissioners approved this report.
FY 2022 Audit Report
Joe Ortiz of Kubiak, Melton, & Associates, LLC, presented the county’s FY 2022 Audit Report to the commissioners for approval. Ortiz stated the audit showed no major concerns for the county. The commissioners approved this report.
Annual Request for Hardship Benefits from the New Mexico Department of Transportation
Just as Mountainair intends to get surplus equipment from the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT), the county is as well. The county commissioners approved this measure in Resolution 2023–06. (While the county described this as seeking funding, the commissioners described the resolution as addressing NMDOT’s surplus equipment giveaway.)
Settling Litigation Regarding Opioids
The county commissioners went into executive session to discuss the settlement of the county’s claims in In re Opioid Litigation, 1:17-MD-2804 (Northern District of Ohio) with the county attorney. Upon return from executive session, the county commissioners approved a resolution to enter into a settlement agreement with Albertsons Companies, CVS Pharmacy, Kroger, Walmart, Allergan (now a part of AbbVie, Inc.), and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd./Teva USA.
County Road Construction Building Renovations
The county commissioners next addressed the invitation for bids sought from B & R Construction Co. for the remodeling of the county road construction building, listed as IFB 2023–01. In a discussion that demonstrated confusion regarding the remodeling they had sought for the building and what the goals of the remodeling were, the commissioners considered an approximately $1.2 million bid for the remodeling of the building, but this bid was entered, according to Torrance County Road Superintendent Leonard Lujan, nearly four years ago. While most bids submitted in response to government invitations for bids have a deadline for the bid to become no longer valid, the county commissioners were both confident that B & R Construction would honor the bid.
According to Schwebach, the expected cost for the project four years ago was roughly $600,000, and he felt the county could lower the $1.2 million dollar bid by laying the earth around part of the building, stating “it’s just prep over excavation.” Purchasing agent Noah Sedillo commented on the potential for the county to be liable if there are problems with the building after the county had done the prep work.
“If Torrance County were provided to provide the dirt work, the site prep. However, we would incur the liability with that if something were to happen to the foundation. So my opinion, I don’t think that’s money well spent. Because if something does happen we’ll have to own it.”
Commissioner Schwebach responded, “I don’t know if I agree with that statement.”
Long Overdue Domestic Violence Program Payments
Continuing the concerns regarding slow action by the county, the county commissioners approved paying invoices submitted by contractors (in this case, the local Super 8 motel) to the county’s Domestic Violence Program. The concern regarding the speed of the county’s actions comes from the fact that the Super 8 motel submitted these low-cost invoices for payment in 2019 and 2020. After which, the county delayed payment for four years. When asked by Commissioner Schwebach why it had taken so long to pay relatively small amounts (the two invoices totaled $413.90), Sedillo, the county purchasing agent, confirmed Schwebach’s concern that they had no clue why the invoices were not paid.
DWI Program Budget
Tracey Master of the Torrance County DWI program presented the DWI program budget for approval by the commissioners, seeking $228,948 for the program for fiscal year 2024. The commissioners approved this request. Master also sought $2,239 for “promotional items for outreach events” (swag). The Torrance County Commissioners approved this request.
Funding for Sheriff’s Office Overtime
Sheriff David Frazee sought overtime funding for deputies working on three programs, ENDWI, BLKUP, and STEP (Selective Traffic Enforcement Program). Specifically, Frazee sought $6,048 for ENDWI, $2,814 for BLKUP, and $3,066 for STEP. The commissioners approved this request for overtime funding.