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August23_AndyHood

State Fair Commissioners: Political Hacks or Independent Public Officials?

September 27, 2012, 9:00 am
By Joey Peters

When SFR reported on the Downs at Albuquerque racino deal last month, disputes arose about the proper role of the state fair commission.

The seven-member commission is a volunteer board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate "to assist State Fair Management," according to Expo New Mexico's website (Expo is the fair's official name).

"They are not elected officials," Michael Henningsen, Expo's spokesman, wrote in an email to SFR in August (emphasis his). "They are supposed to move the Governor's agenda forward, and if they disagree with the Governor's agenda, then, quite frankly, they should do the right, respectable thing and resign their appointed post(s)."

The statement was written with Commissioner Charlotte Rode, who's been a stick in the mud for Expo management for the past year, in mind. Rode is a vocal opponent of the state's contract with the Downs and maintains that, outside of the three commission meetings that have occurred this year, she's been "stonewalled" from voicing her concerns with Expo (A Sept. 12 meeting was postponed to a yet-to-be-determined date).

Naturally, Rode disagrees with Henningsen's assessment of the commission's roles. So does former Commissioner Tom Tinnin, who chaired the commission from 1997 to 2002. Tinnin, who also resigned from the State Board of Finance last year over disagreements with the Downs deal, told SFR last month that he'd "be happy to sit down with [Henningsen] and educate him in the real world."

"If this guy is no naive to think that somebody would accept an appointment to be a tool for the governor, [then] what is the purpose of a state fair commission?" Tinnin asks. "If that's what they want, why even bother appointing a commission?"

New Mexico statute, which defines the commission as "a separate and independent legal entity," states that the body "shall prepare, adopt, publish and enforce all necessary rules for the management of the New Mexico state fair, its meetings and exhibitions and for the guidance of its officers, employees and exhibitors."

It continues: "The commission shall determine the duties, compensation and tenure of office of all of its officers and employees and may remove from office or discharge any person appointed or employed by it at will."

In other words, Tinnin says, the commission hires and keeps the state fair management in check.

"If the management runs what the want, [that's] a complete violation of state law," he says. "They're ignoring the statute and reality of what was envisioned."

In an email sent today, Henningsen writes that the commission unanimously voted on Sept. 1, 2011 to "delegate authority for all daily operations at EXPO New Mexico and the State Fair to Management."

"Doesn't leave much open to interpretation," he writes. "Granted, Mr. Tinnin wouldn't have had knowledge of this action since he wasn't at the meeting." 

But Rode points out that day-to-day operations and overseeing the entire management are two different things.

"All it was was authority to operate the facility," she tells SFR. "Nothing in there would relieve us from statutory responsibility. Statute is law that is debated by the legislature and passed. You can't trump state law."

Another dispute that Henningsen, who was editor of the Weekly Alibi for 11 years before switching over to public relations, had was over Rode's interpretation of the commission's ability to evaluate contracts.

"The Commission's sole purpose in this case was to decide if the new lease was a good business deal (or not) for the State Fair and for New Mexico," Henningsen, referring to the Downs contract, wrote. "It was the evaluation committee's job to evaluate the proposals and score them ... Commissioner Rode has always been confused about one point, and that is that the Commission's job was to evaluate the proposals. That is absolutely not true. The Commission's job was simply to decide if the lease was a good deal or not."

"He's dead wrong," Tinnin says, mentioning that he looked over contracts that came to him and other commissioners when he served on the commission. 

State statute says the corporate purpose of the commission "shall be to acquire any project."

All in all, Tinnin maintains that the purpose of the statutes for the commission was "to give a broader perspective of government [other] than by party lines."

"Once it's controlled by the governor's office or staff, the state fair is neutered," Tinnin says. 

 

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