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Not a good start at treasurer’s office

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Political patronage — when elected officials put friends, relatives and supporters on the public payroll — has a long and disgraceful history, and certainly not just in New Mexico. Nevertheless, the practice has waned somewhat in recent years, as public expectations — and the knowledge or expertise required for higher public office and professional staffing — have increased.

So it’s particularly disappointing that Santa Fe County’s newly elected treasurer, Patrick Varela, has returned to the old ways, selecting a childhood friend who doesn’t meet the posted qualifications for the $60,000-a-year job as his second-in-command.

Varela said he chose his friend Eric Lujan, a would-be city councilor with two unsuccessful races under his belt, to be deputy treasurer because Lujan is someone he trusts.

That’s very nice, but what does it have to do with the important business of the treasurer’s office, which includes collecting taxes, keeping track of the resulting millions of dollars in county revenue and even managing investments?

If Varela himself were professionally qualified to handle those duties, it might matter less whether his deputy was. But as with many of local and state elected positions in New Mexico, the qualifications to run for the office of county treasurer are minimal. Both Varela and Lujan are former state Department of Transportation employees. Lujan, who has two years of college, was an engineer technician, while Varela was a physical plant manager.

Varela says he actually increased the requirements for the deputy treasurer’s job, so that it now requires a bachelor’s degree in finance or business or public administration and two years of experience in finance or accounting. (Or, alternatively, an associate’s degree and four years’ worth of experience.)

Again, that’s a step in the right direction. But Varela can’t crow about improving the qualifications when he proceeded to ignore them by hiring Lujan.

It’s important to note that Varela is not alone in hiring familiars as seconds-in-command, or doing it without going through a formal — and open — application process. Deputies quite often serve at the pleasure of the elected official, meaning they can be fired at the drop of a hat. Therefore the officials have more leeway in how and whom they hire.

But contrast Varela’s choice with the two top jobs under the (also newly elected) county clerk, Geraldine Salazar. She kept the two deputies from the previous administration, both women with considerable expertise and experience in running the clerk’s office and the Bureau of Elections.

Likewise, County Assessor Domingo Martinez, who had a distinguished career as state auditor before running for the county office, hired deputies whom he knew from his previous (and highly relevant) experience. There too, he chose people with appropriate professional qualifications.

Varela and Lujan may not make hash out of the county treasurer’s office. But let’s remember that the previous deputy treasurer (who lost the treasurer’s contest to Varela) was fired amid allegations that he was part of a fraudulent scheme involving car wash vouchers.

In any case, taxpayers would have been better served if, instead of giving a $60,000-a-year salary to someone not qualified to earn it, Varela had hired no one at all.

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