March 21, 2016

Riding two horses with one saddle has its pitfalls

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Algernon D'ammassa

Algernon D’Ammassa writes the “Desert Sage” column for the Deming Headlight and Sun News papers.

When Deming and Luna County learned who would be our local  candidates for June party primaries and the November election, one contest in particular raised eyebrows.

Algernon D'ammassa

Algernon D’ammassa

Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz will relinquish his seat after his current term and both major parties are holding primaries to select candidates to replace him. The Republicans have a crowded field of five candidates, and one of them caught everybody’s attention right away: Deming Mayor Benny Jasso.

“Yes, it is true,” wrote Jasso in a statement posted on social media; and no, he has no intention of resigning as Mayor. New Mexico law permits one person to hold multiple offices, with a few restrictions. You cannot, for instance, serve as a legislator and a county official at the same time; and you cannot hold offices that require residence in different places. There is, however, no law forbidding a mayor from serving on the county commission as well.

It can be done – but should it be done?

In a written statement, Mayor Jasso made his case: “I want all government entities in Luna County to work together – I strongly believe by collaboration we project a united, positive and collaborative unit to the outside world… When we work together, more gets done with less and [we] all benefit.”

It is no secret that Deming and Luna County have not been playing well together for some time, and there is clearly a need for a liaison who can build bridges and repair trust between the two entities. Less clear is whether this is the right location for an ambassador.

In his statement, Jasso acknowledged there would be matters on which he might have to recuse himself. Potential conflicts or controversies have led some municipalities in the United States to ban or discourage simultaneously serving in “incompatible offices.” In the state of Washington, for example, “incompatible offices” means “antagonism would result in the attempt by one person to discharge the duties of both offices, or… the nature and duties of the two offices are such as to render it improper from considerations of public policy for one person to retain both.”

Washington’s Attorney General applied this standard in a 1957 legal opinion that is still active policy, and it specifically examines the question of a mayor also serving on a county commission. The opinion cites a number of likely conflicts and concludes: “There may frequently arise situations where the same person would be in a position to propose for one group which he represents, a course of action which his duty to another group would require him to oppose.”

While Jasso acknowledged potential conflicts on the city council, the matter becomes more difficult if he must recuse himself on county votes, leaving matters to be decided by the remaining two commissioners.

What happens when the county must vote on budgets allocating funds to the city or commit to multi-services agreements? Would electing our mayor to the county commission boost collaboration on permitting and zoning, or impose an additional obstacle? If the Deming city council deadlocks on an agreement with the county, would the mayor be allowed to break the tie?

While I personally have no doubts about Mayor Jasso’s ethics and intentions, this plan does not promise to be a model of smooth, collaborative governance. A better model would prepare more of our citizens for public office, rather than elect a shrinking group of people to influence multiple governments.

On June 7, Luna County Republicans will decide.

You can write to D’ammassa at DesertSageMail@gmail.com.

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