Recreational cannabis industry sparks struggle for water rights in parched New Mexico

When New Mexico’s recreational cannabis bill was signed into law in April, Mike Hinkle and Ryan Timmermans jumped at the chance to get into the industry. The two business partners, both recent transplants from the South, bought portable buildings, seeds, grow lights and a property in the village of Carson, with a domestic well they thought they could use to irrigate their plants. In total, they invested more than $50,000. “That’s actually the most money I’ve ever had in my life,” Hinkle said. “I was extremely excited because we thought we had a shot.”

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Utah ed-tech company paid $4.6 million to phone, text, email New Mexico students

In Spring 2020, uncertainty quickly turned to desperation for New Mexico’s Public Education Department. In the first months of the pandemic, tens of thousands of students — as many as one in five across the state — were failing a class, skipping school or nowhere to be found. In response, the state agency made a rushed and questionable decision: It hired a Utah company called Graduation Alliance to pilot an untested “re-engagement” and academic coaching program that relied on phone calls, emails and texts to help at-risk students. For its outreach efforts — which critics likened to spam or robocalls — the Salt Lake City-based firm will earn $4.6 million. This story is by Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here with permission.

Despite eviction moratorium, landlords sought to evict hundreds in Albuquerque

Alexander Handboy, an easygoing 40-year-old, moved into Arroyo Villas, a large, well-kept apartment complex in northwest Albuquerque, in December 2019. Less than two months later, he lost his job as a line cook. By the time the pandemic took hold in March and restaurants began to shutter, he’d given up hope of finding work. By April 2020, things fell apart: His five children, who often lived with him in his one-bedroom apartment, moved to online schooling, and the electricity bill ballooned. When rent came due, he didn’t have the $687 he owed, and by mid-month his landlord tried to evict him.

CYFD employees say they were reprimanded, fired for asking questions about major software contract

In late 2019, Jackson Williams, manager of a data unit at the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, raised his hand at a work meeting to ask about a massive computer system upgrade at the agency — one that could potentially cost $45 million over the next decade. Led by Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock, a San Francisco Bay Area transplant, the CYFD had selected a young California firm named Binti to lead the overhaul, apparently without considering any of the more than 20 other companies that expressed interest in the job. “Who is Binti, and why are they in charge of this project?” Williams asked. 

Within days, Williams said he was taken off the modernization project. Soon after, Williams received a letter of reprimand from his supervisor asserting that he had violated the CYFD code of conduct by “going outside the chain of command” when he voiced his concerns about Binti. Williams later resigned from the department.

High-level officials accuse CYFD of retaliation

A husband and wife who blew the whistle on the state’s destruction of official records have filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department, claiming they were fired from their jobs in retaliation. 

The lawsuit was jointly filed Tuesday by Cliff W. Gilmore, the former head of the CYFD’s Public Information Office, and his wife, Debra Gilmore, an attorney who led the agency’s newly formed Office of Children’s Rights. The suit, filed in New Mexico’s First Judicial Court, alleges that CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock and Deputy Secretary Terry Locke violated the state Whistleblower Protection Act by firing them for raising ethical concerns about a range of issues within the department. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. “When we asked questions and offered perspectives [about CYFD policies], we were shut down and retaliated against,” Cliff Gilmore told Searchlight New Mexico. 

“At the end of the day, my biggest concern is that children and families are being harmed by these practices,” Debra Gilmore added. The CYFD has been under intense scrutiny in the wake of a report in April by Searchlight New Mexico, revealing that the agency used the encrypted messaging app Signal to communicate on a wide range of official state business — and then set those communications to automatically delete. 

Legal experts say the practice likely violates open records laws and could hamper the ability of attorneys to represent children in state custody. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has directed his office to review the CYFD’s use of Signal, saying it is “highly concerning that public employees are potentially deleting public information without a thorough legal process.”

Prior to their firing on May 6, both Cliff and Debra Gilmore had repeatedly raised concerns within the CYFD about the practice, according to the lawsuit. 

Cliff Gilmore is a Marine veteran whose previous experience included work as a communications officer with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The great disconnect

On May 18, a judge overseeing the historic Yazzie-Martinez case ordered the New Mexico Public Education Department to take stock of the massive digital divide in the state and finally identify the roughly 76,000 students who lacked Internet connections they desperately needed for school. 

One of PED’s responses was to create a Google survey for students and staff to fill out online, an action that left advocates and school leaders mystified. “It doesn’t make sense for a lot of different reasons — most of all because people who don’t have internet aren’t going to fill out an online survey,” pointed out Michael Noll, community schools coordinator at Peñasco Independent School District, whose students are among the plaintiffs in the suit. The survey is just the latest back-and-forth in a seemingly endless seven-year legal battle over inequitable education in New Mexico, where vulnerable students receive such an inadequate education that they’re in danger of being irreparably harmed, the First Judicial District Court found in 2108. The court has retained jurisdiction over the Yazzie-Martinez case ever since, to make sure the state implements a litany of comprehensive, mandated reforms. 

Three years later, the state has barely made any progress, critics argue. They say the online survey reflected a broad lack of foresight and basic understanding, especially in light of the state’s long-standing problems with internet access, which vastly undercut students’ ability to learn after the pandemic struck and classes went online.

A broken system: Why the number of American Indian and Alaska Natives who have died during the coronavirus pandemic may never be known

This story is produced by the Indigenous Investigative Collective, a project of the Native American Journalists Association in partnership with High Country News, Indian Country Today, National Native News and Searchlight New Mexico. It was produced in partnership with MuckRock with the support of JSK-Big Local News. In May of 2020, the Navajo Nation reported one of the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rates in the United States. Since that milestone, official data reveals that the Navajo Nation has been one of the hardest-hit populations during the pandemic. The Navajo Nation boasts the largest population of any Indigenous nation in the United States, and thousands of Navajos live outside the nation, in towns along the border, cities across the country, and in other parts of the world, making it difficult to tally the virus’ impacts on Navajo citizens.

In Anthony, NM, a border community and its farmworkers find solidarity in the pandemic

ANTHONY, N.M. — Josh Jasso stood among mounds of greenery in an otherwise parched expanse, squinting at the fields of La Semilla Community Farm. “We’re feeling smaller and smaller in our fractured landscape,” said Jasso, the farm manager at La Semilla, which is located on a stretch of highway in Anthony, a speck in the Chihuahuan Desert along the Texas state line. Its 14 acres are hemmed in by a railyard owned by an El Paso-based gravel company, a young pecan farm and fields of alfalfa. This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico and is reprinted with permission. Roughly 24 miles to the south, a rumble of semitrucks crosses the U.S.-Mexico border, carrying tons of freight from one side to the other.

Two CYFD employees who raised concerns over deleted records were later fired

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has fired two high-level employees who raised concerns about the agency’s practice of encrypting and summarily destroying records. A Searchlight New Mexico investigation has found that over the past year, the CYFD used the secure text messaging app Signal to discuss a wide range of official business, including the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the care of children in state custody and concerns about private contractors. Department leadership then set many of those communications to automatically delete, rendering them forever inaccessible to attorneys, members of the public and journalists. Searchlight also found that the Office of the Governor and the state’s Department of Information Technology supported the systematic deletion of messages, according to emails and policy guidance obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) request. Legal experts warn that it is likely to impede investigations into the agency, cripple the ability of attorneys to represent children in state custody, and could violate the New Mexico Public Records Act’s rules on retention of documents.

Viva Las Vegas: The town is getting a pandemic revival thanks to local teens

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — A loud bass beat vibrated through the air in the kitchen of The Skillet, but line cook Kyle Conway worked in silence. The 18-year-old, a big kid with the suggestion of a mustache, spiralized potatoes into ribbon fries, dumped breaded green chile into bubbling oil and assembled hamburgers hour after hour in the busy back room of the small restaurant. “Things aren’t handed to you in life,” Conway said during a short break. “You have to work for the things you want.”

Conway wants a better future for his city of Las Vegas. Growing up there, he saw how few options young people had.