Let’s take a look at what happened here in 2018 - Albuquerque Journal

Let’s take a look at what happened here in 2018

From left, Rio Rancho Public Schools COO Mike Baker chats with RRPS Safety and Security Executive Director Mike Padilla and security guards Don Mangin, Larry Tafoya and Vince Valdez.
Photograph By: Gary Herron/Observer

As we prepare to enter 2019, the Observer takes a look back at the biggest stories of 2018, including elections, a history-making approval of a Right-to-Work ordinance and debate over a county oil and gas ordinance.

Here’s our summary, compiled by Editor Argen Marie Duncan and staff writers Gary Herron and Diana Cervantes.


The public learned of the deteriorating state of Sandoval County Detention Center when county leaders spoke at listening forum local legislators held on Jan. 11.

County Manager Diane Maes and Special Projects Coordinator Fred Marquez said the jail needed $1.5 million in upgrades. They said the facility needed better security cameras, repair of 100 cell doors that didn’t lock, razor wire for the fencing and improved lighting in the parking lot.

The jail had significant plumbing problems as well.

The next day, 16-year-old Gabriel Storz of Rio Rancho was shot and killed at Rio Vista Park. Rio Rancho Police Capt. Ron Vigil said investigators believed the shooting was related to a drug deal. Jeremy Gurule, also 16, was arrested in connection with the incident.

On Jan. 18, the Sandoval County Commission voted 3-1, with one member abstaining, to approve a Right-to-Work ordinance. The ordinance prevented private unions who come into the county after the vote from requiring union membership as a condition of employment.

Sandoval County was the first county in the nation to pass such an ordinance without being a home-rule jurisdiction. The New Mexico Federation of Labor sued the county over the ordinance in March.


On Feb. 6, voters approved a two-mill levy on property taxes to help pay for upkeep of Rio Rancho Public Schools facilities and equipment. The turnout was 3.3 percent of eligible voters.


March brought City of Rio Rancho elections on the 6th, with all incumbents holding their seats and voters overwhelmingly approving two general obligation bonds.

One bond raises money to repair roads and the other to replace aging emergency-response vehicles and firefighter breathing apparatus.

Mayor Gregg Hull beat two opponents to win a second term. District 2 City Councilor Dawnn Robinson also won a second term, Municipal Judge Robert Cook was elected to a third term and appointed District 5 City Councilor Jennifer Flor was elected to her position.

Bob Tyler gained the District 3 city council seat without opposition.

The Road Bond passed with 77.7 percent of the vote. For the Public Safety Bond, 73.3 percent of voters supported it, allowing of the purchase of three trucks, an ambulance and breathing apparatus for Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Department and 50 vehicles for Rio Rancho Police Department.

On March 14, Cleveland and Rio Rancho high schools saw students walk out as part of a National Walkout Day to protest gun violence and demand stricter gun laws in the wake of the school shooting in Florida.

Rio Rancho Public Schools Executive Director of Athletics Bruce Carver in March announced his plans to retire after 10 years with the district and 35 years in education.

Convergys announced plans to lay off 150 workers at its Rio Rancho call center by the end of April. A spokeswoman said the move was due to a change with a single-client program. The call center continued to operate with the lower staff.

On March 15, the Sandoval County Commission voted unanimously to raise gross receipts taxes by two increments of 1/16 of a percent each to fund repairs at the detention center.


A ribbon-cutting early in April marked the opening of a pellet mill at Walatowa Timber Industries on Jemez Pueblo.

The mill makes wood-burning pellets out of small trees removed from the forest during thinning. By putting the small trees to use, it provides financial incentive for companies to contract with the federal government to thin forests in the area, and it creates three jobs.

Also in April, Rio Rancho Public Schools Fine Arts Director Debbie Fleming announced her retirement. She’d spent 32 years as an educator, 11 of them with RRPS.

On April 18, the Rio Rancho Governing Body approved a zone change for the former golf course property to allow Land Development 2, owned by Josh Skarsgard, to redevelop the deteriorated course. He planned to put single-family housing on the West Nine holes, build commercial or multi-family housing in a couple of other small areas and restore the North Nine and East Nine as a golf course or open space. West Nine homeowners sued over the decision.

The month also shone a spotlight on rapid development of the Unser Gateway area, with four new businesses and a housing development being built near the intersection of Unser Boulevard and Wellspring Avenue.


The news of the passing of the city’s first police chief, Dencil Haycox, caught many off guard, and elicited memories of the impact he had on safety here in Rio Rancho’s early days. Haycox was 83 and had been on life support before his demise in Las Vegas, Nev.

The Sandoval County Commission began discussing the “abandonment” by Tom Garcia of his office as the county’s assessor. Later that month, the information was forwarded to the DA’s office.

The state’s Secretary of Education, Christopher Ruszkowski, was in town to celebrate Colinas del Norte fourth-grade teacher Ashley Randall’s on Teacher Appreciation Day. Ruszkowski seemed to enjoy his frequent visits to Rio Rancho, celebrating the district’s myriad successes, although when a new governor was elected in November, he knew his days were numbered.

The body of 46-year-old Rio Ranchoan Dawn Sandoval was found outside the city limits. It would be several months before an arrest was made in the case, and in the fall, Michael Encinias, 44, was indicted by a grand jury in the death of Sandoval, his ex-wife. He faces charges of second-degree murder and two counts of tampering with evidence when his case gets to court.

The Rio Rancho Governing Body passed, by a 5-1 margin, the preliminary city budget for 2018-19, with a small sales tax increase. The actual balanced budget as to be submitted to the state Department of Finance and Administration by June 1.

The annual commencement exercises for Cleveland and Rio Rancho high schools were conducted at Santa Ana Star Center; CHS had 538 seniors “walk,” while RRHS handed out diplomas to 515 grads.


Rio Rancho Public Schools took a look at its dress code, which needed some tweaking; the code prohibited students wearing “ripped or torn clothing,” and board members were fully aware that torn/ripped jeans were in vogue in 2018. At a later meeting in the month, board members changed the dress code’s wording to OK such clothing.

With what had been a gorgeous golf course and pond areas left to “rot” with the closure of Club Rio Rancho at the end of 2016, residents of The Enclave were concerned with the loss of wildlife near a pond in the vicinity of their homes. Some residents had gone out of their way to help remove some of the wildlife to other wetlands.

After more than a year since the creation of an ethics ordinance for Sandoval County, the ordinance was unanimously passed.

June’s primary brought almost 25 percent of the county’s registered voters to the polls, where one race capturing many folks’ interest was coming up in November, when Darrell “Keith” Elder, defeating Martin Arellano in the primary, would be facing Jesse James Casaus, who defeated two challengers on the Democrats’ side of the race.

The Rio Rancho Governing Body voted to raise the sales tax and authorized the sale of road and public-safety bonds.

The council’s 4-2 vote to add 1/8 of one percent to the city’s sales tax would help ease the deficit in hold-harmless payments from the state.

Residents learned there would soon be another sports team playing its home games in Santa Ana Star Center, which originally had ice for three seasons (2006-09) for the New Mexico Scorpions hockey team. The New Mexico Runners, an indoor soccer team, announced their season would begin in December.

The Sandoval County Commission approved emergency funding to replace the detention center’s damaged radio system.

Former Rio Rancho Governing Body member Kathy Colley tossed her hat into the ring, registering to oppose Michael Meek in the District 3 county commission race; Colley was going to run as an independent.


Former Rio Rancho High School track & field coach Larry Chavez, later a Cleveland High coach before becoming that school’s athletic coordinator, was named to replace retiring Rio Rancho Public Schools Athletic Director Bruce Carver. Former Pojoaque coach and AD Matt Martinez was later named to replace Chavez at Cleveland High.

The brand-new, 204-room Santa Ana Star Casino Hotel opened for business on the Fourth.

The Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education began seriously considering arming its security guards at all 10 elementary schools four middle schools and the high schools. Later in the year, after being approved by the board, it was learned trained guards would be armed and on campuses in January of February of 2019.

The Sandoval County Commission entered an agreement with an engineering firm, Bridgers and Paxton Consulting Engineers, Inc., to take care of necessary renovations at the detention center. The contract was in the amount of just under $180,000.

In what Mayor Gregg Hull called a “historic moment,” Rio Rancho Public Schools opted to select a new site for $24.5 million Joe Harris Elementary, with plans to build it in Unit 10, which is taking on new life in the form of a 450-home subdivision, business park, arroyo work and more. Unit 10 is basically between Westside and Southern boulevards, and between Rainbow and Unser boulevards. The city will aid in the area’s development with water and sewer lines, with a developer paving and expanding Westside Blvd.

The Rio Rancho Governing Body voted unanimously to award a $14.6 million contract to Albuquerque Asphalt for Phase 1 of the Southern Blvd. reconstruction, from NM 528 to just a bit west of Golf Course Road. The year-long project was expected to begin in late August, but didn’t start till the second week of September.

Just in time for the start of the coming school year, RRPS’s new $6.5 million transportation facility, located south of Northern Blvd. and a bit east of Broadmoor, was unveiled.

Sandoval County Regional Medical Center CEO Jamie Silva-Steele was appearing before myriad commissions, councils and civic organizations, stressing the importance of voters passing a mill levy in November.


After a lot of debate and some confusion, Sandoval County commissioners voted to aid Rio Rancho’s two libraries with $200,000, which was to be removed from a countywide library bond coming before voters in November. It was reasoned that Rio Rancho property owners would be paying for the majority of the bond but receiving a minority of its proceeds on the original wording of the bond issue.

Rio Rancho City Manager Keith Riesberg announced he would soon be leaving City Hall for a new position in Winter Park, Colo., after serving five years in the City of Vision. John Craig was named as interim city manager; Mayor Gregg Hull has said Riesberg’s replacement, after a national search, will hopefully be at his desk in early 2019.

City residents – indeed, all of New Mexico – were stunned to hear about a 6-year-old’s murder on Moonstone Drive. Arana Jade Romero, a student at Stapleton Elementary was found naked and bloody in a home in disarray. The residence was familiar to first responders; firefighters or paramedics had been called to the home 35 times, cops more than two-dozen times. In October, 21-year-old Leland Hust was arrested in connection with the senseless, brutal crime; his trial is scheduled for February 2020.

The second homicide in nine days was recorded when 29-year-old Marcos Herrera died from a gunshot wound at SRMC, after being shot at his home on Shore Meadows Drive.

PED Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski was back in town, celebrating – this time at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary – the fact that two-thirds of Rio Rancho’s schools had received either an “A” or a “B.” Cyber Academy, later visited by the secretary, had an “A” for the sixth year in a row.

The Rio Rancho Governing Body approved an agreement with Affordable Solar to build a solar array on Don Julio Road, just east of the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant 2, which would save the city about $100,000 annually for the 25-year length of the contract. The solar array was expected to be built and online in January 2019.


There was a tragic ending to Labor Day celebrations after two balloonists died after a shooting and ensuing standoff with police at the KOA Campground in Bernalillo, Fernand “Fred” Lété, 70, shot Michael LePlante inside a trailer; Lété then passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A .38 caliber revolver was found next to Lété’s body. Both men were members of the local hot-air ballooning community.

The Sandoval Economic Alliance unveiled a VeriReady online system to identify publicly and privately-owned sites suitable for development. This new system was aimed at economic-base firms and others who wanted something ready now, rather than wait for a site to be prepared.

City residents learned of Intel’s plan to add 100 new jobs in Rio Rancho. Intel Corporation moved technology development for its 3D XPoint memory technology to its Rio Rancho facility.

After completing its investigation, New Mexico State Police revealed the Labor Day shooting was in regard to a love triangle gone wrong: LePlante was having a relationship with Lété’s estranged wife.

Attorneys from the Thomas More Society sends a demand letter to administrators at Rio Rancho Middle School on behalf of Dylan Fredette, a student at the school during the 2017-18 school year, charging the school with denial of a student’s proposition to start a pro-life club. The demand letter stated the administrators decline as unconstitutional and must be reversed. Rio Rancho Public Spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass said the situation was a misunderstanding, stating that other RRPS schools have similar clubs and that the schools encourage students to explore their First Amendment rights.

The RRPS Board of Education revealed findings of its survey in regard to the question of whether or not to arm school guards. The survey received 3,300 responses from the community and was made available on rrps.net.

The county’s planning and zoning board sent two potential oil and gas laws to commission: the Citizens Working Group Science Ordinance and the Baseline Ordinance for further review by the commission.


On Oct. 4, the Sandoval County Commission voted 4-0 against ending public comment from the county employees and other elected officials at the county meetings.

UNM Health services planed joint replacement rehab centers at its Rio Rancho campus.

A protest broke out in front of the county building on Idalia Road on Oct. 18. The Commission convened for the discussion of three proposed oil and gas ordinances on the third floor. Although tribal leaders were allowed to speak on the ordinance comment, the public was not allowed.

The public learned that RRPS is in need of more counselors for students with severe struggles. Despite RRPS having 27 social workers administration and teachers at the schools, RRPS saw an increase of students with complex needs. RRPS currently employs 38.5 full-time equivalent counselors.


Republican Michael Meek won the District 3 race for the county commission seat, with 56 percent of the votes against opponent Kathleen Colley. Democrat Katherine Bruch takes the District 1 seat with 62 percent of the vote while Democrat Jesse James Casaus became the new Sandoval County sheriff with 54 percent of the vote.

Mariposa residents voiced concerns and resisted a zone change effort by Harvard Investments requesting to include more R-4 along with 695 acres of land. On Nov. 18, Mariposa residents threatened a lawsuit against the City of Rio Rancho due to possible zoning and residential change.

Also, that month, the public learned of two county officials facing legal cases in separate matters.

Sandoval County employee Tina Tawater sued the county over a failed completion of an Inspection of Public Records Act pertaining to outgoing Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes. She sought to obtain these documents to prove or disprove allegations by Holden-Rhodes relating to her performance as a county employee. Tawater’s original IPRA request remained incomplete and was denied. Holden-Rhodes admitted to deleting emails weekly due to “frivolous” IPRA requests.

The Sandoval County Commission voted to pass a Free-Roaming Horse Advisory Council. The council will consist of nine board members, including two picked from District 1, one from District 2 and two from District 5.

After months of debate on Nov. 12, by a 4-1 vote it was announced that RRPS will get armed guards in early 2019. Board members Wynne Coleman, Catherine Cullen, Ryan Parra and Martha Janssen voted in favor, while board President Ramon Montaño — although in favor of making the schools safer — preferred waiting for POMS & Associates Insurance Brokers’ best practices.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association threatened to sue Sandoval County if the proposed oil and gas ordinance passed during Nov. 29 county commission meeting.

A comic book surrounding the conversations on the Sandoval County Oil & Gas Ordinance was released to an audience in Albuquerque.

After many years of debate and countless oil and gas proposals later, the Oil and Gas Ordinance died due to a lack of a second at the Sandoval County Commission meeting on Nov. 29.


The public learned that the large dip in the ground near Rio Rancho City Hall will become a park with an amphitheater, reading area and overlooks. The 6½ acre park is expected to begin construction mid- to late-2019.

Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Department received the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The grant of more than $876,000, through the course of three years, will be used to hire six new firefighters.

On Dec. 13, the Sandoval County Commission refused a raise for newly elected officials. Commissioners Block, Holden-Rhodes and Dave Heil voted “no,” while Don Chapman abstained and Kenneth Eichwald voted yes.

Rio Rancho Public Schools discussed on adding a gunshot alert system to would be installed in 10 elementaries and the districts and four middle schools. A designated amount of $1.5 million would be set aside for the alarm system.


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