Signatures certified on grand jury petition

A group of Valencia County citizens has successfully obtained enough signatures on a petition to convene a grand jury to investigate the county’s financial crisis.

Bill Brown, past president of the Rio Communities Association, started collecting signatures in early January in hopes that a grand jury will investigate why the county is facing financial distress and who may be responsible.

Lawrence Kaneshiro, director of elections, said his office validated 684 of the 940 petition signatures presented on May 29. The required number of signatures 645, or 2 percent of the 32,289 registered voters was met, Kaneshiro said.

“We excluded duplicates and unqualified signatures, and, to the best of our ability, we certified 684 signatures,” Kaneshiro said.

The petition is asking that the grand jury “determine whether any money, county warrants of other indebtedness paid out or ordered to be paid out by Valencia County, the county commissioners, the county manager, the county treasurer, or any other county officer, agent or employee was done so without authority of law.”

Brown said a lot of people are concerned about the financial crisis in the county and want an independent and unbiased investigation into the budget process.

Valencia County Manager James Fernández said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the petition, but said, “We will cooperate with the judicial system in any request for information.”

County Treasurer Diane Martinez-Coplen said she doesn’t have a problem with the grand jury investigation.

“We’ll cooperate with the judicial process and anything they want to look into,” she said. “My office deals with collection. Expenditures go through the commission and the manager’s office. We have an independent audit done every year, and we’ve never had a problem.”

Commission Chair Al Padilla couldn’t be reached for comment.

The petition also requests the grand jury determine whether there has been any malfeasance, misappropriation of funds or any other illegal acts committed in relation to the operation and practices of the Valencia County budget, business and finances.

Budget and financial status reporting practices and financial violations are some of the areas the petition asserts should be investigated by the grand jury.

Brown said the acts of the commission, staff and elected officials may have caused the second financial crisis in Valencia County within the last 10 years.

“The $3,494,023 Valencia County cash reserve at the end of fiscal year 1997-1998 has been all but eliminated,” Brown said. “The latest public forecast is for a position of virtual insolvency at the end of September, 2002.”

He also said the county doesn’t have sufficient financial controls or reporting systems to alert officials of potential problems in a timely matter.

“Valencia County failed to act, identify or implement any corrective actions to mitigate the financial crisis until after the New Mexico State Department of Finance and Administration issued directives to do so,” Brown said. “The actions taken were insufficient to create necessary reserves but only slowed the spending rate to a position of infinite deficit to required reserves.

“Without subsequent actions, county employees are destined to a 32 hour work week indefinitely.”

Chief District Court Judge Louis McDonald said Tuesday he has excused all the district court judges in the 13th Judicial District from hearing the case.

“We want to avoid any appearance of impropriety,” McDonald said. “The State Supreme Court will assign another judge from another judicial district.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.