Monday, June 13, 2016

What's Up in Sunland Park These Days?  (Part I)

Since city elections on March 1 the newly constituted Sunland Park City Council has been working together on city business for about one hundred days.  How well is this working?  What's going on?

One clue was offered by the discovery that arsenic levels in the water supplied by CRUA for several months exceeded national safety standards.  After the problem was identified, in part though the diligence of state representative candidate Paul Maxwell (who lost to the incumbent) city council members conferred with CRUA staff, consulted with Senator Mary Kay Papen and state and local officials, and were able to address short term issues while glancing ahead for long-term solutions.  At a city council meeting on June 7 the drinking water was declared safe, now that a treatment plant out of commission for a year is back up and running.  However, many residents have been cautious about the water for years now, and Councilman Giove proposed providing free water for seniors who visit the senior center, now operational again.

So far the arsenic problem has been managed by the council without grandstanding or hand-wringing.  This is particularly impressive since the temptation to vent must have been strong.  The creation of CRUA as at the expense of Sunland Park (over 90% of CRUA's assets used to belong to Sunland Park), and was justified largely on the grounds that the city was unlikely to manage its water utility effectively.  CRUA's performance as a utility has if anything been worse.  Among other things, CRUA staff members apparently had knowledge arsenic levels were unsafe but failed to inform residents.  If this does not incur criminal and other legal liabilities for the board, it should.  Executive Director Brent Westmoreland, who took the job only in November, has acknowledged inheriting severe managerial issues.  Will heads roll at CRUA?  Stay tuned.

One casualty of the CRUA issue (there may have been others) was the defeat in the primary election of county commissioner David Garcia.  Just before the election Garcia told an audience of residents in Sunland Park (click here) that the arsenic problem was the fault of the citizens, for failure to pay more attention (!?).  Garcia sat on the CRUA board that failed to show concern about the unacceptable levels of arsenic in the water, until news reports brought it to the public's attention.  As he serves out the remainder of his term the honorable thing is for him to step down from the CRUA board, given his statements about who is to blame.

Bottom line:  the arsenic issue showed that among the adults in the soup of the scandal are the Sunland Park city council members, who showed a lot of poise in a situation that could have been explosive.  For now the water appears to be safe to drink, but serious follow-through by the council will be needed.

Part II is coming next!

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