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Nuestra Historia: East & West named Consolidation Commission

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After the dust settled, following defeat of the Legislative proposal to require a referendum on the merger of East and West Las Vegas, the two municipalities did something that would result in a serious study of consolidation, and its eventual approval by the people.

Whether motivated by a genuine commitment to consolidation, or simply because the issue would not go away, on April 11, 1967, the city fathers (they were all men) of both East and West Las Vegas approved a six-person Consolidation Commission, appointed by the two mayors — and charged with studying the feasibility of merging the twin cities.

On the east side, Mayor Ben Lingnau appointed John “Sandy” Detterick, who was associated with First Federal Savings & Loan, John S. Johnson, assistant to Highlands University President Thomas C. Donnelly, and Jake Padilla, an East Las Vegas city employee.

Detterick and Johnson declined reappointment in 1968, and were replaced by the Rev. Glen McCoy, Director of the Baptist Student Union, and Floyd Chavez, then with Southwestern Oil Company, both appointed by East Las Vegas Mayor Alfred W. Nelson. (Jake Padilla later resigned from the Commission, and Mayor Nelson appointed Lawrence F. Martinez in his place.)

In Old Town, Mayor Chief Gonzales appointed Dist. Judge Joe Angel, who would prove to be a driving and unifying force on the Consolidation Commission. A native of West Las Vegas, Angel had been an Albuquerque attorney until just a year earlier, when he returned to his home town to accept appointment as district judge by Gov. Jack M. Campbell, following the death of legendary Republican jurist and political boss Luis E. Armijo, who had been judge since 1924. (See “El Juez Armijo,” and “The Judgeship Since 1965,” Nuestra Historia, Aug. 10 and 17, 2012.)

Within months of his appointment in 1966, Angel survived close challenges in both the primary and general elections. In the Democratic primary, Angel defeated Tiny Martinez by about 150 votes, then survived a close general election challenge from Judge Armijo’s son, Roberto L. Armijo, whom Angel defeated in the tri-county race by 258 votes, 6,362 to 6,104. (In 1971, Angel’s brother, Frank Angel, also a West Las Vegas native, would become the first Hispanic president of Highlands University, as will be recounted in a later series about the tumultuous times at Highlands in the early 1970s.)

The second Old Town member of the Consolidation Commission was Luis Olivas, who owned and operated Olivas Food Market, liquor store and laundry on New Mexico Avenue, in partnership with his brother Ernest Olivas, who had been mayor of Old Town from 1962 to 1964, succeeding Junio Lopez. Both Olivas brothers had been active in Gov. David Cargo’s successful election in 1966, and Luis later served on the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission. (Luis Olivas and wife Rose continue to reside in Las Vegas, having long maintained a scenic garden sanctuary next to their home on Old National Road.)

As his third appointee to the Commission, Mayor Gonzales named Samuel F. Vigil, then a counselor at West Las Vegas High School. Vigil would later serve 28 consecutive years as state representative from San Miguel County, and 25 as president of Luna Community College, and continues to reside in Las Vegas with his wife Dora (Arellanes).

Initially, the Consolidation Commission existed as two separate entities, with Deterrick serving as chairman of the east-side group, and Angel chairing the west group. In July 1967, they organized themselves as one group, and elected Judge Angel chairman, Deterrick vice chairman, and Vigil as secretary-treasurer.

They also designated Lynn I. Perrigo to serve as official adviser to the Commission, a move that proved most beneficial.
A native of Indiana, Perrigo had been chairman of the History and Social Sciences Department at Highlands University since 1947, and for many years had done extensive research on the issue of consolidation. The writer knew Perrigo personally, and found him to be an honorable man, without prejudice or disdain for anyone. White-haired, pipe-smoking and even reticent, the unassuming professor routinely walked throughout Las Vegas, a sheaf of papers at his side.

Perrigo later wrote of the formidable task that faced the Consolidation Commission, and the division still prevalent in Las Vegas when the Commission began its work. His observations in “La Reunion,” his 1975 monograph about consolidation, appear seemingly remarkable today, but reflected common public opinion at the time: “Summed up, the attitude of those from the west side was that many of the Anglos were prejudiced against them, especially the ‘power elite’ who controlled the destinies of the community[;] [while] the opinions prevailing on the east side were that the Town had a notoriously poor government, that overtures seeking consolidation were actually maneuvers to try to get the City to assume the Town’s excessive municipal indebtedness, and that in any attempt at cooperation between the two cultural groups, the Spanish Americans would seek to take over completely.”

So began the work of the Joint Consolidation Commission in 1967.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.