Sheriff, jail issues dominate year

By Robin Fornoff

CMI PROJECTS EDITOR

rfornoff@cnjonline.com

New faces, another failed jail bond issue, a controversial contract with the sheriff and a new take on same-sex marriage were some of the issues dominating 2013 in Curry County.

Here is a brief look at five issues for the year:

A new face and an old new face: The Curry County Commission got a new look in January with Clovis businessmen Tim Ashley and Ben McDaniel replacing longtime Commissioners Caleb Chandler, who chose not to run, and Dan Stoddard, who lost in the primary election.

Ashley and McDaniel were swept into office with campaign promises to clean up problems at the troubled jail. It was McDaniel’s first elected political office. Ashley was a veteran county commissioner from previous years.

Among their first actions — firing former Ohio sheriff Gerry Billy after a year on the job as jail administrator.

Sheriff’s deputies summarily escorted Billy through the revolving door the jail job has become. He was the 11th administrator in the last 10 years and determined, he said, it wasn’t over. Days later he filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit that remains pending in federal court in Albuquerque.

In December, Tori Sandoval was named the fifth jail administrator in the last three years after serving as interim administrator since Billy’s departure.

Three strikes and a new jail is out: For the third time in three years, Curry County voters overwhelmingly rejected a multi-million bond issue to build a new jail or expand the existing facility.

The latest proposal, a $9.88 million bond to pay most of the cost of a new jail, was defeated in August on a 2 to 1 vote margin. About 10 percent of the county’s registered voters cast ballots.

Commissioners acknowledged on the eve of this latest defeat the message from voters was finally clear. They said they would not be asking for another bond issue anytime soon.

The law, however, precluded any such promises, specifying that a similar request can’t be put before voters for at least another two years.

Commissioners spent most of the year exploring other options to confront overcrowding and spiraling costs at the jail.

In August, they toured a shuttered former state prison in Littlefield, Texas. A private enterprise that once ran the prison bailed out of its contract years earlier, leaving Littlefield taxpayers stuck with the tab of paying for bonds used to finance the empty prison.

In October, an eager Littlefield City Manager Mike Arismendez proposed housing most of Curry County’s violent and medium security jail inmates for a savings of more than $3 million a year. The county spends $5 million a year or about half its budget running the jail and about $750,000 a year of that housing inmates in other facilities.

Commissioners haven’t made a decision on the proposal.

A sheriff as private consultant: In July, Attorney General Gary King started an inquiry into Sheriff Matt Murray’s $36,000 a year consultant contract approved by commissioners in May.

The contract to provide security at the jail was questioned by Commissioner Wendell Bostwick, who argued the sheriff’s salary is limited by a state law that specifically forbids supplementing the salary. Bostwick also pointed out one of the sheriff’s responsibilities by law is to provide security if commissioners chose to designate it so.

Murray maintains his consulting business is private and separate from the sheriff’s position or office. County Attorney Steve Doerr said he believes the contract will stand any legality tests.

King has yet to determine if the contract is valid.

Baby you can still drive my car: A commission that rushed to approve a vehicle forfeiture law in late 2012 made a quick U-turn a few weeks later with new faces behind the wheel.

The law called for the sheriff to seize and eventually sell any vehicle driven by someone arrested for drunken driving who had previous DWI convictions. It was pushed by Chandler — a former police chief and magistrate judge — in his final days on the commission.

The first sign of trouble came from the sheriff. Murray said it would cost thousands for the county to build a secure site to hold confiscated vehicles.

Commissioners Robert Sandoval, Frank Blackburn and McDaniel questioned how the county could seize and sell vehicles based on an arrest without a conviction.

Doerr assured them the law could stand any legality test because it wasn’t part of any criminal code. Rather, the new law fell under civil code enforcement powers held by the county.

Besides, Doerr said, it is patterned after an Albuquerque law.

McDaniel vowed he would never accept such a law unless the accused was first convicted. Commissioners put the new ordinance on hold for 90 days, then outright repealed it in September.

In November, a state district court judge ruled the copy and paste Albuquerque law unconstitutional. The city has appealed and is awaiting a decision.

Taking a vow: Unlike her counterpart in Roosevelt County, Curry County Clerk Rosalie Riley stayed on the job to grant the county’s first same-sex marriage license.

Roosevelt County Clerk Donna Carpenter resigned in protest Dec. 20 — the day after a state Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages.

Riley, as Carpenter, has strong personal beliefs against same-sex marriage, but was also a party to the lawsuit on which the state’s highest court made its ruling.

Riley said in August that she wouldn’t issue a marriage license to same-sex couples. Her words at the time: “If they can force county clerks into giving same-sex-marriage licenses what’s next? Incestual marriage? Bestiality? Where does it stop? … I think it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what the law says.”

Riley later insisted she and other county clerks needed guidance from the state before she would ever issue such a license. She got just that on Dec. 20 and on Monday issued the county’s first same-sex marriage license to Alexis Cross, 30, and Amber Adams, 23, who tied the knot later at a local park.