Curry County Manager Geneva Cooper talks with Lance Pyle, executive assistant and indigent specialist, Friday in the Curry County Courthouse. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Mike Linn: CNJ news editor
Top-level officials like Curry County Manager Geneva Cooper are becoming a statistical rarity.
She got married when she was a junior at Portales High School. She never went to college. She succeeded on work ethic, training and experience, staff members say.
She readily admits that when she hires for her office she looks for applicants with a college degree — and yet her staff says her success comes from hands-on experience, not the kind one receives listening to professors, poring through text books and staring at chalk boards.
Cooper, 61, has been Curry County’s top boss for 15 years. On Tuesday she announced she will retire in December, leaving her office in what she described as “good shape.”
“She’s kind of the heart of the county,” said Bernice Baker, the county’s budget analyst. “She started at the bottom and has done all the jobs … She’s been through all of it and knows how the county operates.”
Baker’s not the only who believes that.
Staff members say they enjoy working for Cooper, a mother of three sons known for her personal management style and her desire to be popular among her employees.
“I consider all my employees my friends. They all know exactly when we’re friends and when to say ‘Ok she’s the boss,’” Cooper said. “There’s never been any problem with that. I think the most incredible experience I’ve had here has been the quality of staff — they make me look good.”
Besides staff, Cooper has the respect of officials statewide, said Lance Pyle, Cooper’s executive assistant and the county’s indigent specialist.
When Pyle was at a procurement conference in Taos last fall, he mentioned to a vendor he was representing Curry County.
The vendor’s response: “You must be from Cooper County.”
“Her strength is her connections on the state level,” Pyle said. “She’s highly respected.”
Cooper was hired as acting county manager in August of 1988, and it didn’t take long for her to grasp the position.
For Leonard Roper, a county commissioner when Cooper was appointed to the county manager’s job in January 1989, there was no doubt Cooper was the person for the job.
“She just caught on fast, there was just no two ways about it,” Roper said. “She’s a sharp young lady.”
After her hire, Cooper said she set about rebuilding the courthouse.
The county jail was on the third floor and there was little room even for the Curry County Commission to hold meetings. Cooper saw need for change.
Cooper lobbied for funds from the state Legislature, and slowly but surely the money trickled in.
It took $3 million to build the Curry County Adult Detention Center, which became operational in 1993 and is located next to the courthouse.
Cooper then used $1 million in state funds to refurbish the courthouse’s third floor. Since the money came in slowly, the project — mainly the building of the district attorney’s office on the third floor — took two years and was finished in 1995.
Cooper also added a new room for county commissioners to meet.
“Over a period of about five or six years, we renovated the entire courthouse,” Cooper said. “To me that’s one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of …”
Her staff agrees the renovations were a great accomplishment, but they said Cooper’s management style — her ability to foster success in her employees — is second to none.
“She can work with any personality,” Pyle said.
Twila Rutter-Wooley, the county’s special projects coordinator, said the “mother” inside Cooper allows her to be an understanding boss, and has fostered friendships beyond the workplace.
“She makes an effort to connect with every employee every day,” Rutter-Wooley said. “She’s not a dictator, she’s a hands-on manager.”
Tough days in the office
By far Cooper’s worst day as county manager was when she received news that her executive assistant, Beth Austin, died in a vehicle collision north of Melrose.
“She was not just a secretary, she was my best friend,” Cooper told the Clovis News Journal in a July 16, 2001, story. “She was a wonderful person and she is irreplaceable. She was loved by everyone.”
“That’s the worst thing that has ever happened in our office, because we’re like a big family,” Baker said.
Other marks that mar the period of Cooper’s tenure include the 2002 death of jail inmate Joyce Acy, who died after swallowing cocaine during her arrest.
The Acy family filed a federal lawsuit alleging gross negligence and recklessness on the part of Curry County and others. It alleged jail officials did not respond appropriately to calls for assistance on Acy’s behalf while in jail. The case was settled by the county for $120,000.
The county is currently being sued by the Clovis News Journal over county salary records.
A few days after the lawsuit was filed, the records were delivered to the newspaper. The lawsuit, which also alleges county violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act and seeks attorneys fees, is pending in 9th Judicial District Court.
The most recent and pressing dilemma for the county is an ever-growing cost of housing jail inmates, many of whom have been transferred to Texas jails because of overcrowding.
Curry County commissioners in July adopted a $20.5 million budget that will cut the county’s cash on hand from $10.1 million to $3.2 million by June 2005. Cooper said the fund drain has been caused mostly by increasing jail costs spread over a number of categories, including the cost to house inmates in other county jails, build a new jail annex in Clovis and pay for inmate medical expenses.
The overcrowding problem has affected all counties statewide, officials say, and Cooper is one of many county managers across the state to feel the effects.
She will leave the county with that problem, an issue commissioners have attempted to work on in recent months.
The lighter side
While Cooper has had her fair share of sticky issues to tackle, her staff seems to get a kick out of some of her more lighter moments.
Pyle, 23, who began working for Cooper when he was a Melrose High School student in September of 1998, found out quickly that Cooper likes her privacy.
Two months into his employment, Pyle decided to call local radio stations to announce Cooper’s birthday, including her age.
Cooper isn’t a fan of having her age read to thousands of listeners, staff members said, and began investigating to find out who called the radio station.
“Geneva, to put it mildly, got very upset about it,” Rutter-Wooley said. “She’s not a very public person; she doesn’t want people to know her age.”
Years later, Pyle was involved in another sticky situation.
Minutes before a meeting, Cooper ran to the restroom with a bottle of what she believed to be hair spray.
After dousing herself, she realized it wasn’t — it was Lysol.
She hurried Pyle into her office and asked if he could smell the disinfectant. He ultimately admitted his boss’ hair was pretty tough on the senses.
Cooper called Rutter-Wooley and asked her to attend the meeting, and left for home early that day.
Cooper said she is resigning to spend more time with her family, and she hopes to get plenty of travel in to Florida, where her son lives.
Her last day will be Dec. 16, but she hopes to help train the county’s next manager while in office, and will provide the commission input on the hiring process, she told commissioners on Tuesday.
While the jail and other county issues linger, Cooper said the only reason she is retiring is because “it’s time to move on,” and that she had been thinking of leaving the office for a few years.
While her employees said Tuesday’s news was shocking, they knew it was coming, as Cooper had been talking of retiring for a few years.
One of the few female county managers in the state, and learning through hands-on experience rather than in a classroom, Cooper is an anomaly, members of her staff say.
“No matter what anybody says it is still a man at the top of the world,” Baker said. “But there’s no man who can do the job she’s done, and work with the people like she has — because she’s knowledgeable and has the heart to go with it.”