Questions raised about county’s judical complex information

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson District Judge Teddy Hartley points to a door inside the courthouse that has been blocked to secure the building. Court officials have said the building is outdated, has security flaws and is too crowded.

Sharna Johnson

Curry County has paid nearly $20,000 for a video, yard signs, brochures and mass mailings related to the Nov. 2 election that will determine whether it builds a new courthouse and jail.

Some area residents are concerned the information being circulated by the county is biased and seeks to persuade voters to approve the proposed $33 million judicial complex.

But County Manager Lance Pyle said county officials believe the content is strictly informational.

Pyle said he and Commissioner Wendell Bostwick personally approved the video, which is also posted on the county’s website, for release to the public.

“I think it’s getting information out to the public,” Pyle said. “Nowhere in there promotes a yes vote.”

Eric Dixon, a Portales attorney who often works in the Curry County courthouse, is one of the more vocal critics.

He said Curry County’s entire outreach effort concerns him and he believes because early and absentee voting occurs at the county clerk’s office, the placement of the video playing on a large screen TV in the lobby of the courthouse is a violation of state law.

The TV continuously plays the narrated video created by the county’s consultants — showing footage of courtrooms and jail, facilities and video from security incidents — to explain the issues faced by the courthouse and jail.

“They either need to allow people with contravening views to put up literature in the courthouse or take (the TV and literature) down. I think it’s campaigning; I think it’s an outrage,” Dixon said.

State law prohibits campaigning and placement of campaign materials within 100 feet of a building where voting polls are located.

County Clerk Connie Jo Lyman said she has looked at the law and doesn’t believe the clerk’s office constitutes a polling place just because it accommodates early and absentee voters.

“I decided it wasn’t my place (to challenge the video placement) because I don’t think it has violated the law,” she said.

Lyman, who said she was not involved in the decision to place the video in the hall, said she has also sat outside her office to calibrate how pervasive the video is to someone in the hallway.

“Even though it’s down there, you don’t hear it in my end (of the hall), so that gave me some comfort,” she said.

County officials have cited security and overcrowding as issues voters should consider.

The project would be the most expansive — and expensive — construction project Curry County has embarked on in its 100-year history. And it seeks to address county needs until 2025, officials have said.

A general obligation bond question asks voters to approve an increase in property taxes to raise $16.5 million for a new courthouse.

The second bond question asks for a .25 percent gross receipts tax increase for capital outlay projects.

The county approved a contract Aug. 17 with an advertising and media production agency for almost $20,000 to perform an informative public outreach effort including fliers, mass mailings, meetings, an educational video and approximately 250 “standard sized political yard signs.”

The contract specifies the information conveyed to the public “has to be neutral and cannot and shall not promote a partisan position.”

Clovis resident Al Lewis said he felt the video threatens the public with consequences — such as closing all but one entrance to the current courthouse and making visitors wait in long lines during inclement weather — if the bonds are not passed.

“It almost appears to me like a threat and I don’t agree with that,” Lewis said.

But the county’s bond attorney, Duane Brown of Albuquerque, said it is customary to emphasize the reasons a bond is needed, which often entails showing images of broken equipment or substandard buildings. That could be interpreted as persuasive, but is not necessarily improper, he said.

And law on the issue is not clear as to what is an informative or educational outreach and where the line is, if there is a line at all.

“It’s all kind of a judgment call. They’re going to show you the reason it needs to be done,” he said. “That’s almost a standard practice.”

Not debatable are efforts by a local political action group that has raised more than $10,000 in private funds to support the judicial complex.

“We thought that this would be a good thing and that it was needed on multiple levels,” said Clovis’ Ben McDaniel, who helped form the group.

“We have a jail that, the way it’s constructed, people could easily break out of, and we have a courthouse that you could be easily murdered in the hall going to vote or pay taxes and I would think it would scare anyone.”

The group, which he said registered with the secretary of state’s office, has placed four billboards calling for “Yes” votes in the community and plans to run ads and campaign further when the election draws closer.