Nothing shouts scandal and goofy decisions more than two words: 'school board'
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
Here’s our take on 10 of the biggest, goofiest stories in New Mexico in 2015. Let’s hope 2016 gives us a respite, or else we’ll have to order more rolls of yellow newsprint.
1. The Albuquerque Police Department continued to be the big story in 2015 as it struggled to reform itself and stop shooting (mostly) unarmed people. And the biggest news of the year absolutely rocked the department. In August, two now-former APD officers – Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez – were held over for trial on second-degree murder charges for the March 2014 fatal shooting of homeless camper James Boyd. It was the first time any APD officer had faced criminal charges in any of the 30 fatal police shootings since 2010 – and the first time in nearly 40 years a cop here had been charged for an on-duty death. The last time that occurred was in 1977 when Officer James Babich was acquitted of an involuntary manslaughter charge for striking and killing a man with a flashlight.
2. Public outrage grew as an apparent crime wave swept across the city, fueled, in part, by repeat violent offenders returning to the streets after being arrested. Total crimes in 2014 (latest figures available) rose 1.5 percent, while major crimes, including auto theft, robberies and aggravated assaults, were up 14 percent. That “boomerang thug” story coincided with the deaths of two area police officers, Nigel Benner of Rio Rancho and Daniel Webster of Albuquerque, who were shot in the line of duty. Both deaths sparked grief, support and outrage, and underscored the increase in crime. Webster’s death highlighted the manpower crisis at APD and called into question Mayor Richard Berry’s competence. The department now has approximately 830 sworn officers, down from nearly 1,100 in 2009 when Berry took office.
3. Nothing shouts scandal and goofy decisions more than two words: “school board.” And the Albuquerque Public Schools did not disappoint in 2015. Looking to move on from the Winston Brooks fiasco of 2014, APS hired Luis Valentino as superintendent. And in that single move, APS stepped in a bigger pile than the Brooks stinker could ever be. Valentino selected Jason Martinez as his No. 2. Who woulda thunk that Martinez was an accused child molester from Colorado? APS never did a background check. The mess led to Valentino’s firing in August after only a few months on the job. APS couldn’t even keep its firing of Valentino free from lunacy; it decided to give him $80,000 to go away.
4. Sixteen years after discovering that a giant blob of aviation fuel was heading toward Albuquerque drinking water wells from an underground pipe leak at Kirtland Air Force Base, the Air Force and the New Mexico Environment Department finally started cleaning up the mess. In June, the Air Force’s first extraction well began pumping contaminated water out of the ground and sending it to a temporary treatment facility on base. By November, the well had pumped more than 16 million gallons of contaminated water. By December’s end, two more extraction wells were ready to go online as the Air Force completed a more permanent treatment plant. The progress drew mostly cheers from critics who had accused the Air Force of dragging its feet. It’s estimated that between 6 million and 24 million gallons of aviation fuel leaked into the underground aquifer from the compromised pipe.
5. New Mexico’s economy doesn’t receive the coverage it deserves from the mainstream media, probably because they don’t understand what’s actually going on. And what’s going on hasn’t been good. While the state added jobs during the year, the rate of increase fell to a sickly 0.4 percent in the year that ended Nov. 30. The situation is so bad that the state has yet to recover all the jobs it lost during the recession. It gets worse when you consider that for the past few years, people have been fleeing New Mexico. In the year that ended July 1, the state had a net outmigration of 9,721 people, meaning that many more people left than came here. Since 2010, that net outmigration has totaled 27,115 people. Add to that that the state’s personal income growth in the third quarter ranked 47th among the states and you might start asking yourself why you’re still here.
6. In a normal year, this might have been the top story of 2015, but because most news organizations drool over reports of crime, shootings, nuttiness in government and general mayhem – it wasn’t. Mark 2015 as the year that New Mexico’s years-long drought ended (for the time being, at least). And if you ain’t got water, you don’t have life. So it’s a big deal. January through June was the fourth wettest period in the state’s history, and that erased the drought in about half the state. As of November, there was no short-term drought anywhere in the state, a situation that hasn’t existed since November 2010. Snow and rain helped fill parched reservoirs, raise underground water levels, reduce the risk of wildfire and make people and cattle happy. Now we’ll have to wait to see what 2016 brings.
7. Living in New Mexico can be depressing considering that we make the top of the bad lists and the bottom of the good ones. But here’s one great New Mexico accomplishment you can shout to the world about and be proud of: In 2015, the state ended the practice of civil asset forfeiture, better known as “Policing for Profit.” The bill passed the Legislature with near-unanimous support, and Gov. Susana Martinez signed it. Other states are following our lead. It means that law enforcement authorities can’t seize your property unless you’ve been convicted of a crime. There is some downside to the story, though. Albuquerque and other cities and counties continue to seize the vehicles of suspected drunken drivers, even if those people haven’t been convicted. Two legislators have sued the city seeking to end the practice.
8. Environmental disasters always make top news, and the Gold King Mine spill just south of Silverton, Colo., in August was no exception. Contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency breached a dam holding back water in a tailing pond and sent 3 million gallons of orange water gushing down the Animas River past Durango and into New Mexico, Utah, the Navajo Nation and onward toward Nevada. The toxic slop was filled with heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. The EPA’s failure to notify anyone of the spill until 24 hours after it occurred didn’t help its public image. The river was closed, and farmers were told not to irrigate with its water. Eventually, the river was opened, but people in the Four Corners area are still worried about long-term effects.
9. New Mexicans are used to their public officials doing dumb and illegal things, but when the news hit in August that Secretary of State Dianna Duran had been charged with embezzling campaign funds to support a gambling habit, it was huge. Duran withdrew huge amounts of cash from ATM machines at casinos and was accused of violating the very campaign finance laws she was supposed to enforce. Duran pleaded guilty to six charges of converting approximately $13,000 in campaign funds to her personal use. She resigned her office on Oct. 22 and was sentenced to 30 days in prison.
10. If you have ingested any mind-altering substances, stay away from recording devices, don’t post anything on Facebook or Twitter, don’t call or text anyone, and basically sit on the couch and stare straight ahead until your head clears. Despite five years in office, it appears that Gov. Susana Martinez hadn’t learned that lesson by Dec. 14 when she threw a Christmas party for her staff and friends at Santa Fe’s Eldorado Hotel. Her noisy and rowdy guests took to throwing bottles off a hotel balcony, which led a hotel clerk to call the Santa Fe police to complain about the noise. That’s when a riled-up and “inebriated” governor went to the front desk to demand that dispatchers call off the cops. Martinez slurred into the phone that she and her disabled sister were eating “pizz-zah” and drinking Cokes and disturbing no one. It seemed that Martinez was throwing her gubernatorial weight around, and she became the butt of jokes across social media. Her enemies gleefully declared that any aspirations she might have had to be the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee were dead. Here’s another lesson from Pizz-zah-gate: Don’t lie about the amount you’ve had to drink. Martinez said she had drunk about a cocktail and a half during several hours at the party, but no one who heard the tapes believed her.
Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.