February 11, 2016

Soil and Water Conservation District elections should be in the light of day

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Dr. Teresa Smith de Cherif has served on the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District Board since 2008; was the 2014 Democratic Candidate for New Mexico House District 7.

OPINION:

The Judicial Committee of the New Mexico House of Representatives is expected to consider House Bill 143, which would change dates for certain elections, including those for New Mexico Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

 

Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) were established under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt as a response to the catastrophic Dust Storms in America.  These nonpartisan, local public bodies, whose Board Members are elected, are designed for natural resource conservation. Yet, some SWCD Boards have violated their mission by engaging in partisan politics, even overtly working against wildlife conservation and maintaining lands in perpetual conservation. This subversion has been possible because SWCD elections are held in off-cycle years and without the public scrutiny afforded by campaign finance laws. In this manner, low voter turnout and dark money can rig SWCD elections.

 

These matters are not theoretical. In 2014, voters in Doña Ana County rightfully defeated the local SWCD’s effort to pass a mill levy, having discovered the District was undermining conservation efforts and engaging in partisan politics that can best be described as religious and ranching favoritism. In 2015, when it was time for board elections, the Doña Ana SWCD adopted new geographic zoning that circumscribed candidates and voters, and they called on Congressman Steve Pearce to record a Robo-Call. A senior aide to the Congressman denied to this writer that Pearce campaign funds paid for that call–and the public will never know who paid–because, under current New Mexico law, there is no requirement to report campaign finances in SWCD elections. In this manner, the outcome of the election of Doña Ana SWCD board members essentially was predetermined, and the incumbents prevailed over new, progressive candidates.

Dr. Teresa Smith de Cherif

HB 143’s placement of SWCD elections on November ballots is sound, but the bill is flawed because it does not place campaign finance reporting requirements on SWCD elections. The bill also may jeopardize public funding for SWCDs, by not allowing mill levies to roll over after 10 years. Removing public funding would make it difficult for SWCDs to maintain operations, especially in light of reduced capital outlay funding, and given that grants never cover administration and overhead costs.

 

Soil and Water Conservation Districts should protect the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and land that we love. They will only be true to their conservation mission if the law requires SWCD elections to be held in the light of day. An amended HB 143 would help accomplish these goals.

 

Respectfully submitted,

Teresa K.E. Smith de Cherif, M.D., M.I.A.

The writer has served on the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District Board since 2008; was the 2014 Democratic Candidate for New Mexico House District 7; and was endorsed by the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, Conservation Voters of New Mexico, and most unions. The views expressed in this op-ed are strictly the writer’s.

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