As It Is: Not much scrutiny

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By David Giuliani

In a little more than a week, voters in two districts of San Miguel County will decide on their representatives on the County Commission.

The commission doesn’t get much scrutiny from the public or the media.

Part of the reason is that the county is a relatively smooth-running machine with little drama.

But it’s also because county commissions in most places don’t get much attention.

In a city, we’re closer together, and that results in many contentious issues — zoning, nuisances, public utilities such as water and sewer.

But folks in rural areas have less contact with one another — and with their elected representatives.

For instance, how often does Commissioner Nicolas Leger, who lives in Las Vegas, run into his constituents from Conchas Dam, 76 miles away? Probably not often.

Because of the lack of scrutiny, county commissions can get away with meeting during the day, when most of us are busy at work. Our commission meets at 1:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month. When I worked for newspapers in Eddy and Luna counties, their commissions also met during the day.

If the Las Vegas City Council dared to hold its regular meetings during the day, people would probably be marching on City Hall.

There’s also the issue of what we pay members of the council and the commission. After a huge public outcry a few years ago, the council voted to reduce its pay from nearly $20,000 a year to $10,000. That move came after residents found out that our council members were making more than those in nearly every other city in the state, including those much larger.

But commissioners still get nearly $20,000, and not too many people seem to care. A great argument could be made that they don’t do as much work as council members because there are fewer issues. For instance, the council oversees a number of utilities, while the county does not.

Not surprisingly, one commission candidate is pushing the salaries issue, saying it’s too much, and we’ll see if that gains him any traction. In contrast, another candidate said $20,000 is a good amount for commissioners, contending that they are on duty all the time, running into constituents at the grocery store. Again, because the county’s population is so spread out, I’ll bet council members have more contact with their constituents than do commissioners.

Also, when an issue comes before the council, it usually involves the entire town. Last year, when the council was considering whether to narrow Grand Avenue from four lanes to two, many people came to express their opinions. That’s because the narrowing of Grand would affect people from all parts of town.

However, when a road issue in Pecos comes before the commission, do many people in Las Vegas care? Sure, we pass by on the interstate, but few regularly stop to visit Pecos.

So commissioners make more than our council members but likely do less. And it’s doubtful that arrangement will change anytime soon.

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One thing I’ve noticed in this year’s commission campaigns is that no one has really made a big issue of rural roads.

The county’s situation is simple: Too many roads and not enough money to fix them. In past elections, candidates have promised to be more aggressive about roads, but once they get there, they find out firsthand about the challenges.

A few years ago, Commissioner David Salazar said the county was “spinning its wheels” in fixing roads. He suggested the county set up a road materials plant and save the cost of hiring outside contractors.

The others agreed, and the plant is now up and running. It’s working well so far, and maybe that’s the reason that candidates have been relatively quiet on roads this go-around.

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A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the city of Las Vegas is making available all of its documents related to City Council meetings on its website but that there have been technical problems.

It appears that those problems have been solved. Now, a great amount of material about city business is available for anyone with an Internet connection. This is a giant leap in favor of openness.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.