Morning Word

Another Late Audit Raises Stakes for City Manager Blair’s Job

Former WildEarth Guardians director faces 20 years for fraud scheme

Council to discuss city manager behind closed doors

Come Wednesday evening, the Santa Fe City Council’s regular meeting will include an executive—or closed door—session during which members will discuss a potential three-day suspension of City Manager John Blair. That resolution, sponsored by City Councilors Lee Garcia and Chris Rivera, came last month in response to Blair withholding an August letter from the state Department of Finance Administration regarding the impact of the late audits on the city’s capital outlay funds. In September, Blair apologized and issued a statement pledging a commitment to transparency. Last week, however, on Nov. 20, the city issued—after business hours—a news release announcing its 2023 fiscal year audit also will be five months late. On Nov. 22, the city published an “FAQ” regarding the late audit, answering questions such as “Why is the City just now announcing that the FY2023 audit will be delayed?” (Answer: The city says it informed the public of the new May 15, 2024 timeline for the audit on the same day it learned of it from the city’s external auditor). That question was raised by several city councilors and committee members following the news that the 2023 fiscal year audit would be the sixth consecutive late audit for the city. The news also raises the stakes regarding Blair’s job, with City Councilor Michael Garcia telling the Santa Fe New Mexican he is now of “the mindset that discussion needs to be extended to termination, not just a three-day suspension.”

Gov announces $40 million for recreation

Just before Thanksgiving, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced funding for “quality of life” projects across the state: $40 million worth of Regional Recreation Centers and Quality of Life Grants for community centers, skateparks, rodeo grounds, picnic shelters, park improvements and the like. Some of the top project items include $6 million for the Rio Arriba Recreation Center construction; $4.2 million to Cibola County for multi-purpose arena construction; and $3.3 million to the Bernalillo County for Mesa Del Sol Regional Sports Complex construction. In total, 58 local governments and tribes received funds, which will be disbursed over two years. “Having access to quality recreational facilities and outdoor spaces in your own backyard supports healthier, stronger communities and families,” the governor said in a statement. “This $40 million investment will provide New Mexicans with quality spaces to gather and play from Clayton to Carlsbad.” None of the projects, as it happens, are in Santa Fe. Earlier this fall, the state announced plans to take over administration of capital outlay funds for City of Santa Fe parks due to the city’s ongoing late audits, but backed off doing so after local lawmakers persuaded the governor to allow the city to continue overseeing the funds. In its FAQ regarding the latest late audit for fiscal year 2023, city officials say capital outlay requests will be on the agenda when it hosts local legislators next month for an annual legislative breakfast. “This will be an opportunity to help all interested parties deepen their understanding of the city’s finances, process improvements and overall financial health,” the city says.

PED Secretary “deeply alarmed” by poor student outcomes

Public schools leaders will face “new accountability measures” in light of ongoing “underperforming” schools, Public Education Secretary Arsenio Romero says. In a letter to district “leadership,” Romero describes himself as “deeply alarmed by the high number of low-performing schools and what that means for the state, the children who are being educated here, and our future.” As detailed in a PED news release, the most recent state data shows the number of schools with a “traditional” designation—which means the schools don’t require additional support—fell from 440 schools in the 2021-22 school year to 219 in 2022-23. The number of schools requiring “targeted support and improvement” rose from 113 to 368 in the same time span. And while 2022-2023 school year data shows a 4% statewide increase in reading proficiency to 38%, math proficiency declined to 24%. “Far too many of our schools are underperforming,” Romero’s letter says. “It is time for accountability: for the Public Education Department, for the school districts (including their boards and schools), charter schools, teachers’ unions and families.” Santa Fe Public Schools touted in a news release last week the improved performances by several high-performing elementary schools. Six SFPS schools have been identified by the state as requiring additional support of varying degrees. “We are so proud of all our schools and students!,” SFPS Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez says in a statement. “With the addition this year of our new school improvement lead, we have increased our focus on improved student outcomes in schools with lower designations. I am confident that we will gradually bring all schools to higher levels of performance.”

Former enviro director faces 20 years for fraud

A former director for Santa Fe-based nonprofit WildEarth Guardians has pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering in regard to a scheme he and a fellow defendant carried out for four years starting in February of 2015. According to his indictment, while he served as program director for WildEarth Guardians’ restoration programs, James Matison, 46, of Pueblo, Colorado was responsible for approving contractors’ invoices for the program. One of those contractors, Colorado-based Timberline Environmental, was owned and operated by Matison’s co-defendant, Jeffrey Ham. As described in a news release from the US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico, Matison was experiencing financial difficulties in 2015 and asked Ham to help him carry out a “fraudulent scheme” in which Ham let Matison create fake invoices from Timberline for submission to and payment from WildEarth Guardians. Matison would approve the invoices, “collect the checks and deposit them into Timberline’s bank account.” Ham also provided Matison with pre-signed blank Timberline checks that Matison then used to write checks to an entity called Euro-American Development, an Arizona company Matison controlled. This continued until February 2019 when Ham “put a stop to the scheme.” Ultimately, Matison skimmed more than $240,000 from the nonprofit, which relies on grants and donations for its environmental work, and which cooperated with the US Attorney’s Office throughout the investigation. Under his plea agreement, Matison faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, as does Ham, who pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud last summer.

Listen up

Las Cruces public media station KRWG rolls out a new video series, Trails of Enchantment, highlighting the “unique history and culture of the borderlands.” The first episode, from executive producers and New Mexico State University alumni Andrea Vázquez and Evelyn Sandoval, showcases cherry picking at Nichols Ranch and Orchards in Otero County; New Mexico State Winemaker of the Year Rio Grande Winery in Las Cruces; and, just over the border, Southwest University Baseball Park, home to minor league baseball team, the El Paso Chihuahuas.

Follow the artist’s road

Artsy visits Santa Fe’s “iconic” Canyon Road, an experience writer Annie Lyall Slaughter characterizes as akin to “visiting a mellow art fair " rather “than a contemporary art district.” Nonetheless, Canyon Road’s history and offerings draw 1.5 to 2 million visitors each year. “Even though it’s not the kind of high-pressure urban hip place like New York, it has that slow, deep, rich history of artworks that have proven to be some of the most well-collected artists of history,” Turner Carroll Gallery co-owner Tonya Turner Carroll tells Artsy. Contrary to visitor expectations, Canyon Road galleries proffer more than typical Southwestern fare, with a wide range of 20th century and contemporary artists working in genres and mediums that run the gamut—from Marc Chagall to Rose B. Simpson. The galleries, artists and patrons also champion what the story calls an “artist-first” ethos. “There’s a really strong creative energy here and it’s because you can make a living as an artist,” Nüart Gallery co-owner and painter Juan Kelly says. As for the future: “Overwhelmingly, Canyon Road galleries embrace the fact that the appeal of Santa Fe has spread, believing the street’s artistic integrity is unlikely to fade.”

Painting conflict

Artnet News delves into a thorny legal dispute that involves a painting by Taos Society of Artists founding member and first president Eanger Irving Couse; an auction of said painting last year in Los Angeles; and Santa Fe gallery owner Gerald Peters. In a complicated nutshell, when Bonhams offered Couse’s painting “Flute Courtship” last November, heirs to the painting’s original owner stepped in to lay claim, saying the painting had been one of several stolen in the 1960s from the family by an art restorer in New York. Enter Gerald Peters, who filed a complaint earlier this year in US District Court in the Southern District of New York (in addition to his Santa Fe gallery, Gerald Peters also owns a gallery in New York), casting doubt on that claim, noting “no one ever reported any of the unreturned artworks as having been stolen to any police department, the FBI or Interpol.” Peters’ complaint does note someone associated with Eberhardt & Sons—the original owners— had reported the artworks as missing to the Art Dealers Association of America in 1974—10 years after the fact. The heirs, Joan Weiant and Leigh Brenza, filed their response to Peters on Nov. 20, reiterating the story that the restorer had absconded with 17 paintings in the 1960s, but noting that while they had no leads on the missing works for many years, more recently the family “learned that Gerald Peters and his gallery have documented links, going back to the early 1980s, to a number of the missing Eberstadt artworks, all of which were apparently being sold or exhibited under different titles than those by which the Eberstadt family knew them.” As it happens, a separate Couse painting was among those stolen in Colorado following the same auction at the start of the year, and subsequently recovered.

Drying out

The National Weather Service forecasts a partly sunny day, with a high temperature near 41 degrees and north wind 10 to 15 mph.

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