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Romero: City crew at fault

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Says he reported accident to safety officer immediately

By Martin Salazar

City Attorney Dave Romero says a city crew was at fault for his April 10 accident because workers left a manhole in the middle of the street open and unattended and did nothing to warn motorists about the hazard.

And he says the citations filed against him in Magistrate Court last week alleging failure to give information and render aid, failure to give immediate notice of accident and careless driving do not apply to what occurred and should never have been filed in the first place. Romero said the law doesn’t require someone to wait for police when there is no death, no injury, no vehicle involved or when damage is less than $500.

“Each of these citations do not apply,” he said.

Romero also took issue with the headline in Monday’s Optic, accusing the paper of trying to sensationalize the story.

“There was no hit. There was no run,” Romero said Monday. He added that after the accident he promptly called city safety officer Gilbert Martinez to advise him of what had occurred and to let him know about the hazard on the street.

Martinez confirmed that on Monday.

“He called me right after the incident took place,” Martinez said of Romero. “He called to report it right away.”

Romero’s accident occurred on Valencia Street at 11:45 a.m. on April 10 as Romero was pulling out of the courthouse parking lot. It was captured on the courthouse’s surveillance system.

The footage from that surveillance camera, which was reviewed by the Optic on Monday, shows a city crew attempting to shut off water because of a leak. City worker Abraham Maestas is seen using a six-foot long key to turn the valve off at one manhole inside a part of Valencia Street that was blocked off. He then walks over to a part of the street that isn’t blocked off, removes that manhole and proceeds to turn off that valve. He walks away from the manhole to check to see if the water is off, leaving the manhole unattended and the key partially sticking out of it.

Two vehicles drive out of the parking lot without incident. Romero then drives out, strikes the key and one of his wheels falls into the manhole, leaving his car stuck.

“I couldn’t see it,” Romero said, adding, “I couldn’t move forward or backward.”

The city attorney said there was no one standing near the open manhole to warn motorists, nor were any cones or other warning devices placed near it to alert motorists or pedestrians to the hazard.

“I’m happy no one was hurt,” Romero said. “I’m concerned about the safety practices of our staff. You don’t leave an open manhole... I hate to be critical of my own city.”

The incident raises questions about city safety practices, particularly given the city’s renewed emphasis on safety after the May 2011 deaths of city utilities employees Frank Romero, 49, and Gene Hern, 32. They were killed when the 8- or 9-foot trench they were in off Cinder Road and Palo Verde collapsed, burying them.

After the deaths, the city implemented a series of worker safety precautions and trainings.

City Manager Timothy Dodge said multiple reviews of the April 10 incident are under way.

“I’m taking another look at what occurred,” City Utilities Director Ken Garcia said Monday. “As far as negligence one way or another, I haven’t made any determination.”  

City Clerk Casandra Fresquez confirmed that Romero was on leave when the accident occurred.

The police report filed in the case is based largely on an interview with Maestas, the city employee who left the manhole uncovered. According to the police report, Maestas said he approached Romero after the accident occurred to make sure he was OK and that he then helped free Romero’s vehicle.

Romero said that is untrue. He said Maestas never approached him. He said it was a non-city worker who approached him and helped him. He also noted that Maestas wasn’t wearing a hard hat or a vest. He said city supervisors at the scene of the accident appeared to be trying to avoid him.

As for the citations, Romero said he wasn’t even aware they had been filed until the Optic began asking about it.

The police report notes that an officer tried to reach Romero repeatedly by phone, but was unsuccessful. Romero said he was on his way to Las Cruces, and part of that drive has poor cell reception. He said he did speak to the officer three days after the accident.