Friday, October 22, 2010

Mesquite Candidate Forum: Genuine Debate at the Grassroots, Quality Candidates

The Mesquite Forum, sponsored by the Mesquite Community Action Committee, last night featured candidates for county sheriff and county commission. I moderated the event.

Sheriff's candidates: What would candidates cut and not cut, if budget cuts are needed? Both stressed they would not cut the number of deputies in the field, inasmuch as public safety is top priority. Todd Garrison, incumbent sheriff, asserted that 93% of the current budget goes to personnel costs, so if officers in the field are off the table, there aren't many places to cut, but he would start with equipment and training, if necessary. J.R. Stewart, current President of the Police Officer's Association, stressed there are many sources for funds in addition to the county budget. He would rely on his experience as a successful grant writer to seek additional grants to supplement the budget.

Both candidates agreed that the recent fatal shootings of persons with mental health problems were justified under the circumstances. Stewart assured the audience he knew facts about both cases that were not included in news reports that, if the public were aware of, would put to rest questions about the appropriateness of actions taken. Garrison agreed.

Stewart emphasized the need to establish a community relations board that would meet monthly to exchange information and concerns with the community. Garrison emphasized his desire to continue community-based policing. The major disagreement between them appeared to be over a relatively minor issue, the use of GPS systems in patrol cars. Garrison believes GPS, while expensive, has utility in keeping headquarters informed about the exact location of a patrol car when the officer has had to leave it, while Stewart indicated he believes in high quality radio communications systems, which he said work well currently in the municipal police.

Informal comments I heard after the forum indicated many in the audience were extremely impressed with both candidates and have confidence each of them have more than enough of what it takes to do the job well.

County Commission: Billy Garrett emphasized his strong roots in the local community, as a third generation Las Crucen, his experience as a top manager for the National Park Service in dealing with multiple constituencies, and the importance of adding serious community involvement in both management and planning functions for the county. John Zimmerman emphasized his long experience as a missile-test engineer at White Sands Missile Range, and his experience as a Naval Reserve officer, including writing plans in Bosnia for the air war there.

Zimmerman stressed the need for a comprehensive master plan for the county, and indicated he thought the first iteration of the 2040 plan, written by a private firm, was a "total failure." Garrett's approach seems to be more nuanced, taking into account multiple actors, emphasizing the need for local communities to set priorities after a serious examination of options; for these to be embedded in plans and budgets, and for the commission to take its role as an overarching policy implementer seriously.

Informal comments I overheard after the forum indicated that, like the sheriff's race, both county commission candidates were exceptionally well prepared.

The Mesquite Forum has matured a great deal in just a few years, reflecting greater public awareness, a stronger willingness to engage with candidates and public officials, and a greater social cohesion all around. Community leaders are to be commended, especially the strong, sustained efforts of Arturo Uribe to mobilize community involvement. The South Mesilla Valley is in the path of rapid, possibly massive, economic growth as El Paso spills into the Valley and as developments in the Santa Teresa area portend stronger interaction with Mexico. The Mesquite model is one other small communities in the Valley might look at to protect their interests.

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