Even the most levelheaded among us found 2010 a bit paranoia-inducing. Public servants who seemed trustworthy turned out to be on the grift. Revered institutions bellied up left and right. The recession showed few useful signs of receding. iPhones were demonized. Burglars ran rampant.


And the election…well, let's just say, we could have used some medical marijuana by the time that was over.


We wrap up 2010 with a look back at the top stories that shaped the roller coaster of the last 12 months. True, not all of these stories woke us at 3 am with our teeth chattering. But the pervasive sense of seditious intent from the powers that be did fuel our thinking as we wrapped up the year.


So we present not just the top 10 stories, but our own take on the conspiracies behind them.


Too outlandish? Hey, just because you're paranoid…

Read through all the issues or click through to the news that pushes your buttons:

Swing Low

Spleef Beefs

Show Us the Money


Paint By Numbers


Sometimes Crime Pays

Paolo So-Dreary

Regulate This!


Live Wire


Truth Be Told

Ghosts of Schools Past

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Swing Low

New Mexico followed the nation—and Republicans reaped the benefits

The mood at US Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s victory party on Nov. 2 was festive. Boisterous Democrats made speeches to a cheering crowd at Hotel Santa Fe, and claps turned ovational as Luján entered the room, as John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” played in the background.

For Democrats in the 3rd District, it was a night to

. For Democrats in general—not so much.

In the end, New Mexicans were clearly ready for change, and elected as governor Republican Susana Martinez with a 7 percent margin against Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, while also replacing eight state House seats with Republicans.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, points to both the GOP wins in the House and the executive branch as evidence “that the national mood was impacting state and local races.”

“Four of those House seats were won by the Democrats in either the ’06 or ’08 elections, and four of those seats were long-time Democratic seats that hadn’t been Republican for quite some time,” Sanderoff says.

As for Martinez, Sanderoff believes “the national mood contributed to her victory. It was not the reason for it, but it contributed to the wide margin.”

Sanderoff attributes the primary reason for Martinez’ win to effective messaging in the campaign that linked Denish to outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson, whose approval ratings sunk in his final term. In turn, Denish was ineffective in “countering” that she “was part of the problems.”

Danny Diaz, Martinez’ spokesman, writes to SFR via email that Martinez won over voters “…because her message of change resonated with the electorate. New Mexicans want to focus on job creation, prudent fiscal management, education reform and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in state government.”

Indeed, the seeds of discontent with government status quo were evident early in Santa Fe County, as outrage over government waste and corruption gave rise to

of the national tea party movement.

That movement may not have held ultimate sway with voters, but it still has resonance for some candidates, such as Republican Tom Mullins, the Farmington oilman who garnered 43 percent of the vote against Luján in the 3rd District.

“If the GOP strays from the commitments they’ve made, I think it’s possible there could be a third party in many portions of the country,” Mullins, who plans to stay involved in politics in some capacity, says.

One of the Santa Fe County candidates who fared well against his Republican challenger was state Rep. Brian Egolf in District 47, who walked away with nearly 76 percent of the vote against Republican Brigette Russell.

“We worked to give people a reason to vote for someone as opposed to against someone else,” Egolf says. “And the voters responded.”

Santa Fe County Democratic Chairman Richard Ellenberg credits Santa Fe County for its contribution to wins for state candidates such as Treasurer James Lewis, Auditor Hector Balderas and Land Commissioner Ray Powell.

“We had strong turnout,” Ellenberg says of the slightly more than 59 percent voter turnout. Still, he acknowledges, “the wind was really in our face and that made everything a whole lot harder.”

Don’t look for smooth sailing in 2011, either.

Egolf anticipates the “dramatic changes” in the House will result in Democrats “playing a lot more defense” when it comes to the environment and conservation, and that he and colleagues “will be trying to protect the progress that’s been made in the last eight years…The new Republicans coming in have made no bones about their desire to roll back a lot of this,” he says.

Egolf says while he “honestly and sincerely” hopes Martinez “does a good job,” he’s not optimistic “because a lot of the statements coming out of her office don’t demonstrate a very firm grasp or any grasp of the state budget and how it gets created.”

Ellenberg says that, in addition to voter registration, the Democratic Party of Santa Fe County will spend the coming year focusing on “public responses” to issues such as education and the budget.

“You have the governor-elect claiming that the budget deficit has suddenly increased on her, which is balderdash,” Ellenberg says. “We’re going to be focusing on getting the message out on things like that.”

Diaz writes to SFR that Martinez “will institute common-sense budgeting that will prioritize programs, identify efficiencies, and reduce waste and excess” and will work with members of both parties “to achieve the objective of restoring fiscal sanity with regard to how the state manages the public’s money.”

Perhaps the most significant consequence from the shift in the political landscape will be when the Legislature tackles the 10-year redistricting of the state. Sanderoff, whose company will provide mapping and other services in the effort, anticipates having a Republican governor and a Democratic Legislature “will have a tremendous impact on the politics of redistricting, as it did in 2001.”

The redistricting plan, he notes, needs to pass both houses and be signed by the governor, so “you need a meeting of the minds or it ends up in court.”

While the future remains to be seen, the past already has crystallized for some, such as Ellenberg, who succinctly notes, “I have never seen a year like that, where discontent just so dominated the issues and everything else disappeared.” A moment later, he adds: “Hopefully, I’ll never see another one.”

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

Clearly the election was just a massive plot to turn us all into socialists…er, anti-federalists…Dancing with the Stars addicts?

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Spleef Beefs

Smoke ’em while you got ’em

As the minutes tick down until a new administration takes over the fourth floor of the Roundhouse, the state’s medical cannabis program faces a critical juncture.

2010 was a big year for pot. Arizona and New Jersey joined the medical cannabis smoke circle, which now consists of 15 states in which medical marijuana is legal. Californians even considered legalizing marijuana altogether on their Nov. 2 ballot (although the measure ultimately failed).

But in New Mexico, the three-year-old program continued to struggle with issues of supply and demand and suddenly faced a new threat: Gov.-elect Susana Martinez who, on the campaign trail, expressed opposition to the program.

For now,

, dubbed “schoolmarmish” by Time magazine, is trying to insulate itself from New Mexico’s state budget crisis.

Approximately 200 new medical marijuana patients are currently approved each month. Out of the 17 state-licensed marijuana producers, 11 are currently up and running, according to Department of Health spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer. With an estimated 3,000 patients approved, and stringent caps on production, high demand and short supply is a matter of simple math.

Less-simple math, perhaps, played into the DOH’s 2010 amendments to the regulations governing the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act. Those proposals received mixed reviews from the medical marijuana community, and were finalized in the final days of 2010, on Dec. 17.

Application fees for producers will jump from $100 to $1,000; renewal fees will be $5,000 after six months, $10,000 after a year, $20,000 after two years and $30,000 after three years.

Jeremy Theoret, an Albuquerque lawyer representing two producers and six applicants, says he expects producers will pass that cost on to patients.

Former Medical Cannabis Program Coordinator Melissa Milam is concerned about the cost of medical marijuana to patients living on disability.

“I’m shocked at how little they live on,” Milam says. “If you have a $600 disability [check] and pay for rent, your light bill and groceries, I doubt you have $300 left over for an ounce.”

Milam hopes to start a “union” of sorts for medical marijuana patients, to help them respond to program changes and other issues.

Busemeyer says the $30,000 fee is based on what it costs the program to be self-sufficient, and is reasonable given that producers expect to gross more than $400,000 by the end of their third year in production. The fees increase gradually to accommodate the more-limited resources of producers just starting out, Busemeyer tells SFR.

The new fees are the highest in the nation and, even with its new higher plant limit of 150, the program still has the tightest restriction on the number of plants per producer.

At a public hearing on the proposed changes earlier in December, state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, said increasing efficiency of scale by raising the plant limit would increase patient choice and drive down prices. Although he praised the Dec. 17 increase as a step in the right direction, he’s still concerned about the high producer fees.

“Really what we’re talking about is a $30,000 fee over whatever the gross receipts tax is…The idea is the department definitely needs to be funded properly so it can provide security and oversight for those involved. So we’ll see if this works,” McSorley says.

Busemeyer tells SFR that DOH had feedback from some producers who said the previous 95-plant limit was useful for limiting federal scrutiny of the program, as well as comments recommending the increase.

The DOH approved eight more producers before the end of the year, but expects it will be three to six months before those producers have usable product.

McSorley says he thinks the program still needs five to 10 more producers to supply the current volume of patients.

The volume of applications hasn’t purportedly increased substantially, despite the impending threat of a new administration and, presumably, a new DOH secretary [SFReporter.com: “Waiting with Baked Breath”].

While campaigning, Martinez said she would try to repeal the medical marijuana law because it conflicts with federal law, and because she believes prescription medications can meet the same needs.

Milam has heard rumors a bill will be introduced to repeal the law.

“If that does happen, we will hopefully kill it in its first committee hearing,” she says.

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

Martinez thinks pharmaceuticals render medical marijuana unnecessary—an opinion Big Pharma probably appreciates in many ways.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Show Us the Money

Oh, wait—there isn’t any

This year’s budget talk: déja vu. In January 2010, the New Mexico Legislature convened to deal with a $454 million budget shortfall. Though New Mexico wasn’t in the hole as deep as, say, California, the shortfall still made up roughly 10 percent of the state’s total budget.

It took two special legislative sessions to settle partisan differences over how to close the gap. The divide was classic, with Democrats arguing for higher taxes (euphemistically termed “revenue enhancements”) to keep services intact while Republicans advocated for across-the-board cuts.

By March, a compromise was reached, and the budget was balanced—for the moment.

Over the next few months, though, the gap between the state’s revenues and expenditures crept back up. In October, the Legislative Finance Committee put the 2011 budget shortfall at $260 million. A month later, Gov. Bill Richardson’s office issued its own estimate—$452 million—setting off a statement war between incumbent and incoming administrations.

Richardson’s late-in-the-game estimate, Gov.-elect Susana Martinez announced, “confirms our suspicions that the Richardson/Denish administration has been hiding the ball all along.”

Richardson Deputy Chief of Staff Gilbert Gallegos fired back with fervor: “It’s not surprising that Susana Martinez doesn’t understand the budget,” Gallegos’ own statement read.

State Rep. and LFC Chairman Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, says the discrepancy exists because Richardson’s estimate doesn’t take into account legislative cost-saving measures enacted last session, such as shifting the burden of contributions to public retirement funds from the state to individual government employees.

“The LFC number says we’ll continue those [cost-saving measures],” Varela explains. “That’s the one we’re using to build our budget.”

Varela also sits on the interim

, which, in advance of its final meeting in December, floated a range of ideas to improve government efficiency by consolidating state agencies and eliminating certain committees, advisory boards and task forces.

The Martinez camp has so far been quiet on its plans for 2011.

Harvey Yates Jr., the former chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico and a member of Martinez’ Government Efficiency Task Force, tells SFR the task force has met only once.

“I’m not very well-informed on this,” Yates says. “We’re in the process of reviewing various ideas. I’ve been told we’re going to meet again next week but, beyond that, I don’t know.”

During her campaign, Martinez promised to avoid cuts in the two heftiest budget arenas—education and Medicaid—without raising taxes.

Those promises are now fluid.

“The Governor-elect intends to protect core functions like classroom spending and basic health care for those most in need, but given the fact that the budget deficit nearly doubled since the election, she recognizes that it might become necessary to look for savings in certain bureaucracies in order to maintain core functions,” transition team spokesman Danny Diaz writes in an email to SFR.

Martinez plans to release “a balanced budget that does not raise taxes” before the start of the next legislative session on Jan. 18, Diaz adds.

While the two administrations exchange words, intimations of real change trickle out from state law-makers.

One proposal, by state Sen. Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, removes the governor from the State Investment Council—a move Keller describes as the final step in ensuring state investment decisions aren’t political.

Keller says he anticipates sup-port for the bill—largely because corruption, investment-related and otherwise,

.

“Another summer of scandal has proven the need to further separate politics from investments,” Keller says.”

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only four US states don’t currently face budget shortfalls—a reality Keller says helps draw attention to the need for reform.

“One of the few upsides of a budget deficit is that it really focuses people on less glamorous issues like taxes and investments and, obviously, the budget,” Keller says. “In a surplus budget year, it’s like, what cool program can you develop that will use up the surplus? In down years, you’ve got to look at the things that are a lot less sexy, like investments and taxes.”

Get ready for an un-sexy 2011.

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

Richardson has been siphoning money to book a seat on the first Spaceport flight.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Credits: Illustration by Santino Dixon
Credits: Illustration by Santino Dixon

Paint By Numbers

Santa Fe’s contemporary art scene stays current with the economy

In Santa Fe, the financial world and the art world go hand in hand—recent research shows art sales represent nearly 40 percent of the annual inflow into the economy. As such, the art world also was rocked by the shaky economy of 2010. Tumultuous times were made that much more turbulent when three of Santa Fe’s contemporary art institutions brought on new leadership. At the same time, the scene continued to evolve, as new endeavors burst onto the scene.

This past year, the New Mexico Museum of Art, SITE Santa Fe and the Center for Contemporary Arts all hired

, Mary Kershaw, Irene Hofmann and Craig Anderson, respectively. Their appointments echo broad shifts on all levels for these institutions and much has happened with new captains at the helm.

At the same time, NMMA lost three positions—administrator, financial specialist and senior curator—in the past year, although it also received payout from endowments, which did not occur in 2009.

“We’ve spent a bit of time internally reviewing our procedures and refocusing our priorities,” Kershaw, who was traveling abroad at press time, writes to SFR via email. “We now plan our activity program at the same time as our exhibitions, with an eye to building new audiences and engaging our current audiences more actively.” Kershaw also notes the addition of music at the museum on Fridays and one-person shows that focus on New Mexico artists.

Additionally, NMMA just launched three web initiatives, all aimed at making the museum’s collection accessible via the internet.

Hofmann, who moved to Santa Fe two months ago from Baltimore, Md., says she has spent much of her time acquainting herself with Santa Fe and the job at SITE.

Still, she’s already initiated a micro-granting program, adapted from similar programs in other cities, called Spread, which offers funding to New Mexico artists for interesting projects. The money is raised at dinner parties, during which artists make their pitches and guests vote on who receives the door money. The first dinner is scheduled for March.

This time last year, CCA was in danger of closing, but was saved at the last minute by two anonymous donors. According to Anderson, CCA has been “on a balanced budget since February,” but he admits that the search for funding is “competitive.” Despite the difficulties, Anderson says that CCA’s mission—“to create, maintain and promote a vibrant regional gathering place for the exploration and presentation of diverse and challenging contemporary art forms and ideas through our interdisciplinary programs”—remains the same.

Just as maintaining long-standing institutions can be tenuous in the current economy, so can initiating new, small ventures. Contemporary art galleries Axle Contemporary, Eggman and Walrus, and David Richard Contemporary all opened shop in 2010.

Evan Glassman, owner of Eggman and Walrus, which opened in September and focuses largely on young contemporary artists, says these first few months have been “challenging, exciting, but highly difficult.”

“Sales are good,” he says, but “it’s a lot of work.”

David Richard Contemporary opened in June and represents national and international abstraction artists, as well as buyers.

“It’s not been a shoe-in,” owner David Eichholtz says, but “we’ve been pleased with sales and there’s been a general acceptance.” The gallery, he adds, is “here for the long haul.”

With all of its parts constantly in motion, a cohesive picture of the contemporary art scene can be elusive. But while internal views on the scene differ, they all remain positive.

“For a city the scale of Santa Fe, it’s pretty impressive who is here and the conversations happening around contemporary art,” Hofmann says.

Eichholtz points to Santa Fe’s history as a place that “has always attracted artists from all over the world, to experiment with new forms of art, new mediums.” Despite the economy, the contemporary art scene “continues to be influenced by an influx of artists from all over the place,” he says.

And those artists work together. Kershaw describes the art environment as “collaborative…across the contemporary art institutions now, which I think will only help to build on the strength of the contemporary scene in Santa Fe.”

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

The economy collapsed because the financial world was tired of aspen paintings.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Sometimes Crime Pays

It was a year of criminal activity—some of it by the cops

If the life of a cop is nine parts complete tedium to one part high excitement, some members of Santa Fe law enforcement adjusted that ratio this year by creating their own dramatic interludes.

Former Sheriff-about-town Greg Solano, who earned Santa Feans’ trust with his seeming openness and accessibility,

himself in November 2010 as a white-collar criminal and apparent eBay addict. Solano copped to selling used county bulletproof vests and other equipment while “trying to keep my family afloat during these tough financial times." A state police investigation so far has discovered that Solano also sold new equipment that he stole from the county and other obscure items, netting approximately $40,000.

According to

that 9th Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler recently unsealed, Solano used his county-issued computers, his father-in-law’s computer and that of a neighbor, whom he was supposed to be helping with computer problems, to post the items.

Chandler tells SFR that it will take investigators some time to comb through the fruits of the eight warrants.

If Solano’s shenanigans were characterized by discreet cunning, former Santa Fe Police Officer David Smoker’s violent assault on a handcuffed teenager last January seemed to result from a total lapse in self-control. Smoker was caught on video beating 17-year-old Brendon Singer.

The Santa Fe Police Department terminated Smoker and Officer Robert Hollingsworth, and suspended Officer David Rael, because Hollingsworth and Rael failed to stop the attack. The incident reverberated in the March city mayoral election, when the video was made public; the city police union

Mayor David Coss challenger Asenath Kepler. The union had opposed the terminations.

Lt. Stephen Ryan, who conducted the internal investigation into the beating, was later put on paid administrative leave for a year and a half after being charged with driving under the influence. When his conviction was overturned in October, City Manager Robert Romero put him back in the internal investigations section, angering the Santa Fe Police Officers Association.

The SFPOA, a union of officers and sergeants in the department, on Nov. 8 voted no confidence in Romero and in Deputy City Attorney Mark Allen, complaining they were micro-managing SFPD.

Romero says replacing police union member Lt. Gerald Solano, who had taken Ryan’s place, with non-member Ryan was “a joint decision among management,” undertaken because “doing internal affairs investigations properly and in a timely fashion is important.” He wouldn’t say whether Solano’s work on internal affairs investigations was inadequate.

The no-confidence vote is just a symbolic way for the union to express its frustrations to the public and city elected officials. Public Safety Committee Chairman and City Councilor Ronald Trujillo says the City Council hasn’t discussed the vote yet.

“All parties need to come together and discuss what’s going on,” Trujillo says.

Romero says he has already started to address the problem by assigning more deputy city attorneys to handle labor issues, instead of having Allen handle all of them.

Mayor Coss says that because police work is one of the city’s biggest areas of liability, it’s important that internal affairs investigations are conducted promptly and thoroughly.

“In all of that, there’s plenty of opportunity for friction and misunderstanding, but we’re fixing that,” Coss says.

Meanwhile, agents of all local law enforcement agencies are trying to keep up with the steady increase of burglaries in the Santa Fe area. Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office recorded 38 more burglaries so far this year than last, though state police’s numbers for the Santa Fe area are so far nearly identical to last year’s.

“It could be the cost of living—it’s hard to say. It could be the economy,” Sheriff Robert Garcia tells SFR.

The city also has seen an uptick of property crimes (2,119 this year versus 2033 last year).

City Police Chief Aric Wheeler says the department is considering electronic ankle monitoring for property offenders.

“There are a lot of re-offenders and I think we need to do a better job of keeping them from re-offending,” he says.

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

Local law enforcement personnel despair of ever appearing on Cops: Santa Fe. So, instead, they are trying to garner a spot on America’s Most Wanted.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Paolo So-Dreary

A revered music venue goes silent

“It’s sitting there, collecting snow right now,” Santa Fe Indian School Superintendent Everett Chavez says of the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater. Santa Fe’s first snowstorm of the season has just hit, and Chavez sounds stressed-out and, quite frankly, aggravated. “We’re having problems with it right now,” he adds. “We had to dig up some water lines that were busting, and we had to cap off some of the infrastructure to it.”

In the early 1960s, the Institute of American Indian Arts commissioned Italian architect Paolo Soleri to design the amphitheater. IAIA has since relocated off the grounds of the former Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian School, which Congress transferred to the All Indian Pueblo Council in 2000.

Last summer, Santa Fe collectively freaked out when school officials announced they were shutting down public access to the beloved music venue. Soleri himself issued a public statement, noting that he would do “anything to support the preservation and renovation of the theater” [SFR Talk, June 16: “Paolo Politic”]. The dramatic response was due in part to the city’s affection for the amphitheater itself, which for decades has hosted musical shows ranging from the Indigo Girls to Modest Mouse to the last show at the venue, Lyle Lovett, at the end of July.

School officials countered with information on Paolo’s mounting expenses, and their plans for further development of the educational resources on the campus [Cover story, July 21: “Redemption Song”].

Reaction to Paolo’s closing also was fueled by public outrage over the July 2008 demolishing of many of the historic buildings on campus, including a brick schoolhouse that had been built in 1890.

On July 15, US Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, D-NM, wrote a letter to the All Indian Pueblo Council and Chavez, noting the importance of the amphitheater to Santa Fe’s history and culture. Within that letter, the two senators defer respect to the council’s authority on its own lands, but write, “in our opinion it would be a significant loss to the community if the amphitheater is not retained”—and offer their assistance should the council decide to preserve the amphitheater.

According to Bingaman’s spokeswoman, Jude McCartin, no meeting has yet taken place between the senators and officials from the council or the Santa Fe Indian School. But, she notes in an email, “we’re working on it.”

Earlier this year, there also was a growing movement interested in building a new Paolo Soleri elsewhere in Santa Fe, Fan Man Productions’ Jamie Lenfestey says. Lenfestey had brought music shows to Paolo since 1992 and worked on the venue’s final show this past July.

That movement lost steam when people began focusing instead on saving the existing structure on the grounds of the Santa Fe Indian School as an architectural treasure and a piece of American history.

Even if the council receives federal funding and agrees to refurbish the amphitheater and save the building itself, one problem remains: School officials do not want visitors and concertgoers on the campus of the school, where students in grades seven through 12 live and attend classes. In other words, even if the structure itself is salvaged and saved, the public still may not be able to attend concerts there.

But Lenfestey would like to see a return to the idea of a brand new “living, breathing outdoor performing arts space” for the city.” And by supporting a new Paolo Soleri, school officials could assist those in Santa Fe who are seeking a performing arts space.

“It would be great to have them come on board,” he says. “We could study the existing Paolo to build a new Paolo. They could allow the architectural renovation of the existing Paolo, but also lend a helping hand in helping Santa Fe build a new performing arts space.”

CONSIPIRACY THEORY: There actually was a well-tread conspiracy theory regarding Paolo’s destruction: that a casino was planned for the school grounds. However, under the federal law that transferred the Indian School land to the All Indian Pueblo Council, the land can only be used for “education and cultural” purposes,” and gaming is prohibited.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Regulate This!

One troubled agency—many, many conflicts

If you’ve ever turned on your heater, called your mother, used the internet or gone to a doctor, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has influenced the transaction. The PRC, which consists of five handsomely compensated ($90,000 a year) elected officials, is charged with ensuring New Mexicans pay “fair and reasonable” rates for public utilities—and, in return, receive “reasonable and adequate services.”

In other words, turning on a light shouldn’t break the bank—and electricity should always be there. Like freedom.

Because the PRC plays such an integral role in New Mexicans’ daily lives, ethical lapses within its leadership are particularly disturbing. Last year, two commissioners—Jerome Block Jr. and Carol Sloan—were accused of serious crimes. Block’s indictment, for election code violations and embezzlement, now languishes in the New Mexico Court of Appeals. This past April, Sloan was convicted of two felonies related to an incident that occurred last fall, in which she attacked with a rock a woman she believed to be her husband’s lover.

But 2010 ushered in a whole new set of scandals, this time related more to the commission’s actual work than its members’ extracurricular activities.

In February, Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico announced plans to increase rates for its customers by as much as 24.6 percent in order to cover rising health care costs. In April, minutes before a hearing on the proposed rates, the PRC Insurance Division’s then-superintendent, Morris “Mo” Chavez, announced that the case had been settled—and that Blue Cross could levy rate hikes averaging approximately 21 percent.

A public outcry ensued, resulting in Chavez’ resignation amid allegations of a backroom deal, as well as the revelation that Blue Cross’ parent company enjoyed a surplus of approximately $6.7 billion. But even customers’ outrage didn’t sway PRC commissioners—because, according to Commissioner Sandy Jones, that’s just the way the agency works.

“We make decisions not based on public comment at a hearing, [but] on actuarially sound testimony that is subject to cross examination,” Jones says. “That’s what made that whole Blue Cross deal so absolutely frustrating: Somehow, the public was led to believe that they could come out there and make a difference in how that rate case was made.”

But Commissioner Jason Marks says that system alone is reason for change.

Marks says he still disagrees with the PRC’s decision to allow the rate increase, but acknowledges that the rate case at least brought attention to the lack of public influence in how utility rates are set.

Marks foresees legislation to provide for more public hearings—but he also says change is needed in the way commissioners are chosen. Among lawmakers’ proposals to streamline state government is the idea of appointing commissioners. It’s unpopular among most current commissioners—Jones calls the idea “ridiculous”—but Marks says he’s willing to consider the idea.

“I thought, [since] there are a lot more voters out there who are consumers than who own regulated companies,” elected commissioners “wouldn’t necessarily favor consumers,” but would “at least be fair,” Marks says. “Yet I see commissioners who tend to be deferential to large, regulated companies, so my theory doesn’t work.”

But he describes another idea on the table—abolishing the PRC entirely, via constitutional amendment—as “very, very dangerous. It’s basically an opportunity for the powerful regulated companies to rewrite things in a way that favors their interest.”

But not unprecedented. The PRC itself was created in 1996 after voters abolished by constitutional amendment its predecessor agencies.

Blue Cross isn’t the only company making headlines for its rate hikes. Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest utility, also seeks rate hikes of 20 to 22 percent.

“If we could have avoided asking for a rate increase at this time, we would have,” PNM spokeswoman Susan Sponar writes in an email to SFR. Electricity costs will already rise for PNM customers by approximately 35 cents each in January; if the PNM case is approved, Sponar writes that the average monthly bill of $60.61 would increase by an additional $10.19 in April and by another $4.25 in January 2012.

Marks has requested two additional public hearings in Albuquerque so the public knows what’s at stake—but with ever-intensifying renewable energy requirements to satisfy, PNM has said more rate hikes are in the offing [News, July 14: “Energy Dependence”].

CONSIPIRACY THEORY: Public Regulation commissioners taking kickbacks from big utility companies? Let’s just say it’s not impossible.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Live Wire

Wireless technology and cellular towers transfix Santa Fe

When it comes to garnering national attention of the comedic variety, Santa Fe has a reputation to uphold. Whether it’s leash laws for cats, permits for panhandlers or drug raids on tomatoes grown by schoolchildren, the City Different has a history of handing out easy one-liners for late-night talk show hosts.

We began 2010 with a doozy, when local activist Arthur Firstenberg sued his neighbor Raphaela Monribot over the use of her iPhone. Firstenberg claimed to be physically suffering whenever Monribot trolled for data in the house next door. The lawsuit quickly went viral over the blogosphere, complete with implied eye-rolling and the tag line “only in Santa Fe” [SFReporter.com/wifi].

But as city officials this past spring heard public input regarding a proposed new telecommunications ordinance, it became clear that Santa Fe is a “hot spot” in the growing, global movement decrying the health effect of cellular and wireless technologies. The reams of evidence put forward at public meetings—both to prove the potential for harm and to demonstrate the safety of such technologies—created a public dialogue that carried on throughout the year and shows no signs of diminishing.

On June 9, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of adopting the telecommunications ordinance, with the stipulation that a mayor-appointed task force develop a strategic plan for implementing distributed antenna systems and new cellular towers.

Although members were appointed to the task force—or Communications Franchise Advisory Committee—Qwest Corp. almost immediately filed a lawsuit against the city, as it did the last time the city approved a telecommunications ordinance, in 2002. City of Santa Fe Marketing and Information Director Joyce Bond says task force meetings have been halted “until the lawsuit with Qwest is settled.”

In the meantime, opponents of cellular and wireless technology have formed a group of their own, the Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety (whyfry.org).

“Dozens of city councils are blocking new cell towers for six months to a year, to protect their communities,” alliance member Felicia Trujillo says. “Santa Fe is the only city that is shortening notification of new towers from one month to 15 days, and basically rubber-stamping all new towers. Data from eight- and 10-year studies by US health agencies will be published this year…Most cell tower contracts are for 30 years and difficult to break. We need a moratorium, not a rubber stamp of two weeks.”

The group has been effective in stopping a planned tower for the Solana Center and in blocking a proposed tower in Fort Marcy Park.

The Fort Marcy effort was bolstered by the presence of a fire station and the International Association of Firefighters’ position that cellular towers in proximity to stations have negative effects on the health of firefighters.

Santa Fe Fire Department Chief Barbara Salas declined to comment.

Public safety related to first responders is a concern of the Federal Communications Commission as well, but not in the same way. The National Broadband Plan, adopted this year by the FCC, argues for the creation of ubiquitous, nationwide, wireless networks. The plan states, “Careful planning and strong commitment could create a cutting-edge public safety communications system to allow first responders anywhere in the nation to communicate with each other, sending and receiving critical voice, video and data to save lives, reduce injuries and prevent acts of crime and terror.”

The FCC’s plans mirror local momentum. Several northern New Mexico counties and tribal communities, including Santa Fe, are currently using American Recovery and Reinvestment funds to improve broadband infrastructure.

City of Santa Fe Economic Development Division Director Fabian Trujillo says broadband infrastructure is “probably the most critical component we need in Santa Fe for strong economic development.” However, Trujillo stresses that a hard-wired backbone and a fiber-optic network are the city’s priority.

“Wireless can be an important part of such a system,” he says, “but our priority is getting hard-wired connectivity.”

Ultimately, alliance members may be barking up the wrong tree. Federal statute bars local governments from making decisions based on the perceived health effects of communications technology.

If activists are hoping for local legal precedent, they’ll have to wait a bit longer: 1st Judicial Court Judge Sarah Singleton will decide Firstenberg’s lawsuit against his neighbor in March 2011.

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

Electromagnetic frequencies put out by antenna arrays and cellular towers are effectively shielding people from the mind-control agents disbursed in contrails. Activists against Wi-Fi are actually CIA plants sent to help the government control the minds of its citizens.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Apparently taking a cue from McCain’s campaign, Matthew Ortiz suspended, um, reason in order to take charge of the economy.
Apparently taking a cue from McCain’s campaign, Matthew Ortiz suspended, um, reason in order to take charge of the economy.

Truth Be Told

Ethics turns out to be a word in the dictionary

Perhaps Santa Feans should thank City Councilor Matt Ortiz for failing to disclose a conflict of interest arising from his legal representation of a city contractor. So says activist Marilyn Bane, who helped draft the bill to reform the city’s ethics code.

After all, Ortiz’ controversy prompted city officials and concerned citizens on an ethics code reform odyssey. Some hope a new code will result in clearer and more functional rules in 2011.

While under contract with Santa Fe County, contractor Advantage Asphalt & Seal Coating became the target of an as-yet-unresolved fraud probe [News, Aug. 18: “Anthony’s Empire”]. Over at the city, it came to light that Ortiz never notified city officials that he was representing the company as its lawyer, and voted on Advantage contracts with the city.

Ortiz maintains the ethics code is vague. And proposed changes to the code do include a new, broader definition of “conflict of interest.” However, even the old code makes it clear that a council member should disclose if he or she has financial ties to an entity affected by the council’s vote, as Councilor Miguel Chavez points out.

“An attorney is confused about when he’s supposed to disclose?” Chavez asks SFR rhetorically.

Chavez and former city Ethics and Campaign Review Board member Fred Flatt lodged the original complaints against Ortiz last summer, although Chavez subsequently dropped his. Flatt’s complaint lead to the ECRB in November fining Ortiz nearly $500 for failing to disclose the relationship.

Jim Harrington, who serves on the board for government accountability group Common Cause New Mexico, and is one of the proposed code’s authors, believes the current code defines conflict of interest clearly. But Harrington says the code is vague on the remedies and repercussions when conflicts of interest arise. Although concerned parties can complain to the ECRB, the code suggests the council should first pass a motion to disqualify the conflicted official from voting.

Ortiz didn’t reference this portion of the code in his situation, Harrington notes, but “I was so concerned that the next time this happened, some councilor” could use that portion of the code to argue against a complaint’s validity, if it wasn’t preceded by such a motion.

Ortiz continues to maintain that the complaint against him was politically motivated.

He says when the original ethics code was created in 2004, he expressed concern “that this is going to be used for political purposes and, lo and behold, when the opportunity arose, a complaint was filed against me for what I believe was political purposes.”

Drafters of the revision say the new code attempts to address such concerns by restructuring the ECRB.

The board currently has nine members, one appointed by Mayor David Coss and one by each of the city councilors. Proposed changes would give the ECRB one ethics officer and six board members chosen by Coss from a pool recommended by the State Bar of New Mexico and civic groups.

“What we are trying to do is to depoliticize it,” Bane says. “Politics will never be out of anything—the issue is how can you minimize it as much as possible.”

Bane, Harrington and other concerned citizens took over the revision process, in part to ensure the ethics code is effective and not political.

Harrington says the current code contradicts itself; at times, it is unnecessarily specific and, at others, too broad. He believes this is because many sections were, in fact, created in response to political situations.

“The concern is so many of these darn things at the city happen because somebody is after somebody else,” Harrington says. “You can probably see them if you read the code carefully. You remember back. ‘Oh, so and so was trying to get so and so here; that’s why we got this in there.’ A lot of that is getting cleaned out.”

Both Harrington and Bane say that while Ortiz’ situation set the ethics code reform process in motion, these reforms, unlike previous amendments, don’t target any individuals.

“If anybody ever accuses me of being politically motivated on this, I’ll chop off their head,” Bane says. “We have approached this in the most honorable way possible. It’s an honest effort to try and get the best ethics ordinance we can.”

Mayor Coss says he expects a study session with city councilors to convene and discuss the draft in early February. After that, he expects the city will move to publish a new ordinance amendment.

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

Nothing like an ethics discussion to distract folks from rising water rates and poorly-plowed streets…just sayin’.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Ghosts of Schools Past

Santa Fe learns hard lessons

Once the scene of schoolgirl crushes, high-pitched laughter and, sometimes, tears, Larragoite Elementary School now stands vacant. Its students left last spring, along with those at Kaune and Alvord elementaries—the first in a wave of school consolidations intended to address Santa Fe Public Schools’ looming budget problems.

“Our funding is shrinking, and things are not getting better,” SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez tells SFR. “We have to look at where we can save every single red cent.”

Gutierrez often invokes nationwide trends—evaporating stimulus funds, rising costs and state budget problems—to explain SFPS’ rationale. But Santa Fe’s parents, by and large, aren’t biting.

Cate Moses, founder of the Santa Fe Alliance of Parents for Progressive Leadership in Education (APPLE), says SFPS’ leadership has “tunnel vision; they’re always in crisis mentality.”

A panicky outlook, Moses says, is hardly conducive to objective decisions.

“Why are they in favor of consolidation?” Moses wonders. “All the research says it’s better to have more small schools—and cheaper, too!”

That’s evident in the case of Acequia Madre Elementary, another school scheduled to close at the end of the current school year (and one of only three whose students passed No Child Left Behind testing standards this year). The estimated cost to consolidate Acequia Madre with Atalaya Elementary is approximately $28 million—a figure that dwarfs the estimated $250,000 SFPS will save. (In August, SFPS Board Vice President Mary Ellen Gonzales compared it to “going out to buy a new car and discovering your only choice is a Rolls Royce.”)

The district’s headaches don’t end there. Critics say SFPS hasn’t managed its money responsibly—an assertion that can be difficult to verify given the district’s restrictive records policy [News, Nov. 17: “A Teachable Moment”].

As a result, the public outcry at SFPS’ budget and consolidation meetings last spring has only intensified, and even Gutierrez admits that the board’s decision to close Acequia Madre “is still objectionable to most of the parents.”

If that’s the case, then a Dec. 1 presentation by Architectural Research Consultants, Inc.—a firm SFPS contracted to assess the district’s south-shifting demographics and devise a plan for improving flow and efficiency among schools—was decidedly tone-deaf. All four of the proposals ARC presented called for closing Acequia Madre, and three also called for closing another small school, Nava Elementary.

“They worked on the assumption that Acequia Madre would be closed because that has been the board’s directive,” Gutierrez says. “But, if the board should change its mind, it would be brought back into the overall planning.”

A reversal isn’t impossible: In February, three of SFPS’ five board members’ terms expire.

“The prudent thing would be to put off all these decisions until the three new school board members are elected,” Fred Nathan, executive director of the Santa Fe think tank Think New Mexico, says. “Because if it is three new board members, and I suspect it might be, they might have a totally different perspective.”

Nathan has been a staunch advocate of small schools, largely for the same reasons Moses cites. But Gutierrez has often said the nation is moving in a bigger-school direction, placing her at odds with vocal contingents of parents and advocates.

Most recently, Gutierrez came under fire for placing restrictions on school board candidates.

“Two people in our community have taken what I asked totally out of context,” Gutierrez says. “If [candidates] want to speak with principals and the staff at schools, I’ve just asked that they make those arrangements through my office so I can make sure that everyone has fair and equal access to schools.”

(Gutierrez says she does trust the principals to make the decision.)

To some, SFPS doesn’t have the trust capital to make such demands. On Dec. 6, Attorney General Gary King issued an opinion that SFPS can use bond funds for projects not outlined in the bond issue when voters approved it—namely, consolidation.

State Sen. Phil Griego, D-Los Alamos, who brought the question before the AG, disagrees with its outcome.

“It sets a dangerous precedent because school boards can come in and say, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it,’ and then, at the back of their mind, say, ‘No, we’re going to use it for this other thing,’” Griego says. “Why don’t you just cut the deal in the back room?”

CONSIPIRACY THEORY:

Consolidating small schools…building brand-new big ones…pretty good payoff for the favored contractor, huh?