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Mora project in peril

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By Martin Salazar

The director of a state agency given oversight authority on the Mora County Complex says he is “alarmed” by the Mora County Commission’s decision to hire Roger Gonzales as interim county manager, given his history with public funds.

And Arthur W. Pepin says the Administrative Office of the Courts will continue its involvement with the project only if Gonzales isn’t involved in any way.

Pepin’s comments are contained in a May 14 memorandum obtained by the Optic. The memo is addressed to the Mora County Commission, the Department of Finance and Administration, the Legislative Finance Council, New Mexico Finance Authority and the New Mexico Association of Counties.

AOC’s threat to walk away from the project is significant because the $1.85 million appropriation from the Legislature to complete the next phase of the vacant complex is contingent on Mora County’s continuing its collaboration with the AOC. Without that collaboration, the county would not be able to access the funding, according to the language in the bill containing the appropriation.

Commission Chairman John Olivas confirmed last week that he has received Pepin’s memorandum, and he said he is hopeful that county officials can meet with the AOC to mitigate some of the concerns expressed. He said he doesn’t believe the county will lose the funding.

Patrick Simpson, deputy director of AOC, told the Optic on Friday that whether the project can be salvaged is up to Mora county.

“We think they need to turn the reins over to us,” he said.  Simpson said that AOC has put up beautiful courthouses throughout the state using its successful system.

Pepin states in his memo that he is concerned about the commission’s decision to hire Gonzales as the county’s interim manager because of his “documented history while serving as Chief Operating Officer of questionable disbursements and lack of internal controls at the Mora Independent School District.”

The state Public Education Department yanked Gonzales’ business license in 2012, and it ordered him to repay $16,446 in school funding that it says he misspent. Gonzales, who at the time was serving as the school district’s chief operating officer, is appealing the decision. PED’s findings were consistent with the findings contained in a special audit released by state Auditor Hector Balderas in 2009.

The Mora County Commission hired Gonzales as interim county manager in April. He is being paid $350 a day under a 50-day contract, Olivas confirmed last week.
Gonzales was brought in shortly after the commission fired Thomas Sanchez. Olivas and Vice Chairman Alfonso J. Griego voted to terminate Sanchez, while Commissioner Paula Garcia voted against it.

Project stalled for years
Lawmakers appear to have imposed the oversight contingency on the $1.85 million appropriation because of the project’s troubled history.

The project has been stalled for several years because of a lack of funding, leaving many county offices in portables.

The building’s shell was completed with a combination of local, state and federal funding. Critics argue that the building is too big.

A special audit of the Mora complex project found a number of missteps by county officials and others working on the project. Among the findings were that there was a failure to follow the procurement process, that decisions weren’t well documented and that the county failed to certify that goods and services were received prior to paying millions of dollars to contractors.

As part of the special audit, the county committed to revamping its processes and to tackling those issues by certain dates.

Pepin notes in his memorandum that AOC cannot support the completion of the complex unless the issues addressed in that special audit are resolved to the AOC’s satisfaction. He notes that the county hasn’t provided his office with any documented evidence showing that the corrective action outlined in the report has been completed, and he adds that many of the deadlines have already passed.

“At the very least, from my point of view, entrusting a person with Mr. Gonzales’ history to execute the public finance reforms identified in the Special Audit of the complex project creates an appearance of diminished dedication by the Commission to transparent government and a questionable commitment to following the procurement code and proper fiscal practices,” Pepin states. “I do not foresee the AOC being able to collaborate with an individual with this history.”

He later states, “The involvement of the AOC in the complex project would have to be without any involvement from Mr. Gonzales.”

Pepin also notes that another corrective action requirement in the Special Audit was that the commission would hire a separate project manager for the county complex on or before May 30. He states that at this point, that deadline probably can’t be met because the county needs to follow a Request for Proposals process. Pepin states that the team reviewing responses to the RFP would have to be determined by the AOC and might or might not include a member of the county commission or the county manager.

“If Mora County were to execute a written agreement ceding to the AOC the authority to hire the project manager following the issuance of the RFP, with the Project Manager subject to dismissal only upon written direction from the AOC, and with a commitment that the Project Manager could not suffer interference or lack of cooperation from the county manager or county commission, it might be possible to overcome the challenges to hiring a well-qualified project manager,” Pepin states.

Pepin ends his memo by asking for a written memorandum of understanding outlining the project, defining policies and procedures that must be followed and spelling out responsibilities of all participants. He asks that AOC be given sole responsibility for hiring the project manager. Pepin also states that if the terms outlined in his memo aren’t acceptable to the county, AOC will not participate in the project further.
 
Gonzales must be hands-off
Simpson, the AOC deputy director, said that at this point, AOC needs to have supervisory control over the project manager, supervisory control over the money and over contracting services. And he echoed Pepin’s statements that Gonzales would need to be hands-off.

“I think the folks in the county that we have put these buildings up in are really happy with what they have,” Simpson said. “I know Mora County, like other counties in New Mexico has had some issues with Santa Fe telling them what to do, but this is a situation where we have a proven track record, and we’ve been free of controversy and utterly transparent. We’ve never had an audit fining on construction projects or procurement.”

Several missed deadlines
Olivas said many of the decisions being made by the commission are driven by the deadlines in the audit.

He acknowledged that the county has failed to meet a number of the deadlines and added that’s why the commission took action on the manager position.

Olivas said one of the things Gonzales has been focusing on is working on some of the corrective plans listed in the special audit.

“Mr. Gonzales was put in place to adhere to some of the corrective action plans that were in the audit,” Olivas said. “He’s only serving as interim for two months. Those are his priorities, to get those corrective action plans in place.”

Olivas said the commission is hoping to have a permanent manager in place by July 1. Gonzales served as Olivas’ campaign manager.

Olivas said the county has a special meeting scheduled for May 30, and he said the commission will discuss the AOC issues at that meeting.