BELEN — A Belen nonprofit and Valencia County have been served with a lawsuit alleging the company “orchestrated a campaign to oust” a county contractor.
In a lawsuit filed in the 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque on Oct. 24, attorneys for Melissa Denetdale, the former Juvenile Justice Coordinator for Valencia County, allege the county fired the coordinator after a pressure campaign by Belen-based H2 Academic Solutions.
According to a press release from Albuquerque law firm Hall Monagle Huffman & Wallace, which represents Denetdale, shortly after her hiring in October 2021, Denetdale was met with resistance by H2 staff “when she tried to do the basic tasks of her job, such as collecting vital data about how many youths were being serviced by H2 Academic Solutions’ programs.”
Valencia County attorney Dave Pato said the county does not comment on pending litigation.
H2 co-owner Holly Chavez said the company continually sought ways to work with Denetdale during her time as coordinator.
“We set up and attended meetings with the county, with their (human resources) director, and worked to fix the problems,” Chavez said. “There was the recognition that we don’t have to like each other but have to work professionally and move forward.
“We worked really hard, but we didn’t ever get there. We never spoke out against her publicly or at any meetings. We never spoke poorly about her. We did have concerns and we took those to the appropriate people.”
Valencia County has a contract with the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department to provide juvenile justice programs.
H2 is subcontracted to Valencia County to provide those programs, and Denetdale was hired by the county as the coordinator to oversee the programs and make sure the subcontractor is complying with the terms of its contract, according to the same press release.
H2’s contract is paid by a grant awarded to the county by CYFD. The multi-year grant provides about $330,000 a year.
One issue raised in the suit that Denetdale says led to her firing was H2 staff’s alleged resistance to providing sign-in sheets for sessions provided to youth clients and survey results.
“H2A, among other acts and omissions, routinely failed to provide Denetdale with sign-in sheets that had complete and accurate information, and failed to provide completed exit surveys in a timely manner,” the suit reads.
Chavez acknowledged there were probably some clerical errors on the sign-in sheets, as well as some missing documents.
“If we do a class at a school site, for instance, it’s possible the sheets didn’t get turned in by an instructor,” she said. “Is it as if whole programs are missing? No, never. We do make mistakes, that’s just a fact, and we try to fix them every single time.”
According to documents provided by Chavez, there seemed to be a conflict about which survey results Denetdale was to be provided.
While the complaint references CYFD required exit surveys, in a January letter from H2 sent to the county’s grant manager, Jeremias Silva, and county manager, Danny Monette, Chavez claims Denetdale created her own youth survey and expected H2 staff to administer it and provide the data to her.
Denetdale claims H2 began a “campaign to defame” her to Valencia County following a youth forum she facilitated with the Boy’s Council, one of the juvenile justice programs offered by the company, at H2’s offices in Belen. After her March visit, Chavez and H2 co-owner, her daughter, Noelle Chavez, sent a letter to Silva to notify him of “grave concerns” about her visit.
“The letter accused Denetdale of making ‘potentially harmful’ comments to the boys, asking leading questions, being dismissive and providing false information,” the suit reads, noting all the complaints were false and misleading.
Specifically, the suit indicates H2’s complaints were that Denetdale repeatedly asked the youth participants what was bad about the program, noting she “knew the program was boring,” was dismissive of a student who expressed suicidal ideation, referred to the Boy’s Council as “counseling” and told the boys if they were caught smoking marijuana as adults, they wouldn’t be allowed to attend college, while also referencing her marijuana use “tribally.”
“The specific reference to Denetdale having shared with the boys that she used marijuana ‘tribally’ is illustrative of the letter’s insidious goal of serving to obstruct Denetdale from fulfilling her job duties,” the suit reads. “As a Native American, Denetdale considered the phrase ‘smoked marijuana tribally’ to be racially charged, inappropriate and highly unprofessional.”
The suit continues, noting Denetdale is a member of the Navajo Nation, and the use of marijuana for cultural or religious purposes is a stereotype of Native Americans.
Chavez said neither she nor Noelle were in the forum held by Denetdale at Denetdale’s request, but did watch the forum by video feed, which the former coordinator was aware of.
“She was trying to get the kids to say why they were there. You don’t do that. She didn’t seem interested in hearing from them about the program. She kept asking for negative feedback. After the forum, she wanted to get rid of the curriculum,” Holly Chavez said. “Also, we are not counselors and shouldn’t be represented that way.”
In regards to Denetdale’s alleged statements about using marijuana, Chavez said there was no racial intent by H2’s use of the word “tribally.”
“We were repeating what we heard that caused us concern,” she said.
There was an unsuccessful attempt at mediation after the March letter, and in June, Denetdale was informed the county would not be renewing her contract.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.