Torrance County Commission Addresses Non-Profit Comments on TCDF, the SunZia Project, and Access to the Sheriff's Department

Torrance County Commission Addresses Non-Profit Comments on TCDF, the SunZia Project, and Access to the Sheriff's Department
Torrance County Commissioners Kevin McCall, Ryan Schwebach, and Sam Schropp
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ICE Detainees at the Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF)

Arial Prado of Immigration Law Labs spoke to the commission during the public comment period, speaking on alleged inhumane conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility. Prado said that the TCDF was used to discourage undocumented immigrants from coming to the United States. Commissioner Ryan Schwebach stopped Prado's public comment, explaining that there was a two-minute limit on public comment. Commissioner Sam Schropp said he had a rebuttal letter regarding Prado's comments, to be delivered at a future meeting.

SunZia and Pattern Energy

Pattern Energy Director of NM Project Development Jeremy Turner gave a 15-minute presentation on the wind project in Torrance County. Turner said that there are a total of 916 wind turbines that will be part of the SunZia project. Turner said that there will be 652 miles of access roads that will be shared with the community. Banner, he explained, will start the project in the south of Torrance County and then move to the north in 2024. Banner has 284 workers in Torrance County, Turner said. Chairman Schropp raised the issue of economic opportunity associated with housing workers who are part of the SunZia project.

Next, Commissioner Schwebach raised for a vote the issuance of Taxable Industrial Revenue Bonds in the amount of $575,000,000 related to El Cabo Wind LLC. Initially, Commissioner Schropp said he had to abstain from the vote because he was not fully informed on the project, but after a brief statement from Turner, the commission unanimously voted in favor of a consent and crossing agreement and a mutual non-disturbance and cooperation between Torrance County and parties related to the SunZia wind project (El Cabo Wind LLC, La Joya LLC, Pacific Wind Development LLC, and SunZia Wind North LLC).

Appeal of a Planning and Zoning Decision

The Tate Family Trust, through Oden and Associates, appealed a planning and zoning board decision to deny the creation of a Type 3 subdivision. This would be a rural residential zone with lots no smaller than 2.5 acres. Goen said that the application for this subdivision complied with the county ordinances. Schropp said the planning zoning board voted on emotion rather than applicable law. The commissioners unanimously voted to overturn the planning and zoning board decision and grant the application to build this subdivision.

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Torrance County Fair Board's Unauthorized Expenditure

The Torrance County Fair Board sought payment of $750 for 50 hours of training the fair board's administrative assistant. Fair Board official Marcie Wallin acknowledged that the Fair Board contracted for this training without seeking authorization from the County Commission. Commissioner Kevin McCall asked her what the trainer's responsibilities were. Wallin explained that it was in the documentation provided to the Commissioners but did not elaborate. Commissioner Schropp expressed concern that this request for money was raised after the fact, eliminating oversight that could prevent conflicts of interest. Wallin said that the training was for a worker who received a 3% commission on sales at the fair related to weighing, selling, and documentation of the sale of livestock. Commissioner Schwebach said that the 3% commission money should be used to pay for these expenses rather than the money the commissioners gave the county fair board (presumably for its budget). In the past, the county's general fund and the fair board accounts received the 3% commission.

McCall asked why another county employee was not used in place of this contractor. The fair board did not ask the county commissioners for permission to hire this contractor within a timeframe that would have allowed for an alternative to this expense, McCall continued. With frustration, the commission eventually agreed to approve this expense.

Access to the Torrance County Sheriff's Office and Civil Liberties

Deputy Sheriff Stephanie Reynolds spoke regarding access to the Torrance County Sheriff's Office (TCSO) facility, arising out of a complaint related to YouTube personality James Springer visiting the office last week. Reynolds explained that the problems related to this complaint were because the sheriff's office shares an entrance with the 7th Judicial District Courts. This entrance is often manned for court security, leading to a situation where no one can visit the sheriff's office without being subject to search and seizure. Reynolds explained that there should be a separate entrance for the sheriff's office due to the civil liberties of people visiting the sheriff's office, which does not need to follow the security protocols of the New Mexico court system. Commissioner Schwebach expressed the sentiment that the Torrance County Sheriff's Office should be in a building other than the courthouse.

Commissioner McCall said that there was a security and safety issue related to the TCSO secretarial staff and said he was comfortable with limiting firearms for those entering the sheriff's office. Commissioner Schropp said that creating a separate entrance for the sheriff's office would eliminate concerns regarding the Second Amendment because the sheriff could set his own firearm policy, and the 7th District Judiciary would be able to control its firearms policies separately. Torrance County Sheriff David Frazee said he was concerned for his staff's safety due to threats against the staff. He said he was comfortable with visitors to the sheriff's office being subject to the same security as visitors to the court, and that he preferred the door closest to the sheriff's office be used only as an emergency exit. Deputy Sheriff Reynolds said that renaming the building as a courthouse rather than how it is currently named, i.e., a "justice complex," would help address this issue. County Attorney Mike Lopez requested that the commission address the matter "offline" with legal counsel before a policy was set. In the end, no policy was set regarding the matter. Deputy Sheriff Reynolds said she would consult with attorneys and bring findings to the commission at a future meeting.

Concerns Regarding Unapproved Expenses

Commissioner McCall asked why county employees entered into so many services without first obtaining commission approval. County Manager Janice Barela said they are trying to eliminate this by bringing in new finance staff. McCall said his biggest concern is that a large item will be disapproved and will lead to a potential legal dispute between a provider and the county. Commissioner Schropp expressed concern that the reduced checks on contracts opened the county up to the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse and opened the county up to accusations of nepotism and cronyism.

Commissioner Schwebach said there would be a special meeting of the County Commission on November 15, 2023, at 9:00 AM, and then a regular meeting on December 13, 2023 (skipping Thanksgiving week).

UPDATE 20231108 1616: This article was updated to include the identity of the Tate Family Trust and Oden and Associates.

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