County officials debate vehicle policy, who must follow it

File photo

BERNALILLO — Sandoval County Commissioners tightened the county vehicle policy to prevent abuse at their meeting Sept. 19.

Nearly a half-dozen changes to the vehicle policy were highlighted and discussed before the commission passed the new policy on 4-to-1 vote, with Commissioner Katherine Bruch dissenting.

The commission suggested the amendments after Vice Chairman Jay Block noticed loopholes in it several months ago during a presentation by Mark Hatzenbuhler, the county’s director of public works.

“I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but after hearing Mark’s comments, I realized that there were a few things open to abuse on the policy,” Block said. “The county has more vehicles than it does employees, and I thought it was our responsibility to the taxpayers to remedy some of the wording in the old policy.”

By the time the policy made its way back for a final vote on Sept. 19, all five commissioners had reviewed the policy and added their suggestions to each line item on the 14-page document. Most of the amendments involved changing wording to clarify that the policy applies to elected officials as well as employees.

During the public comment section pertaining to the policy, Sandoval County Assessor Linda Gallegos pointed out that her office sometimes takes non-employees for a ride in the county vehicles.

“We have a unique situation in our office, whereas we have people come in that want to discuss the value of their properties, then we just hop into a county vehicle and drive out to the spot,” Gallegos said. “In that case we have had taxpayers in our vehicles. Is this going to be addressed somewhere?”

Sandoval County Attorney Robin Hammer said if taxpayers have questions about the value of their property, they are conducting official business and are authorized to ride in a county vehicle.

“However, there is still a question of whether or not our insurance covers them,” Hammer said. “We should add that if they aren’t a county employee, they should be covered if they have legitimate county business.”

Further on in the meeting, Chairman Dave Heil said many county entities were involved with creating the suggested wording to the policy to make it better, and he took exception to an email stating otherwise.

“We have gotten some feedback that this was not a transparent process, but it certainly has been and it has been open to the public,” Heil said.

The email Heil was referring to came from Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya earlier that same day.

Montoya said in an email that elected officials don’t work for the commission or the county manager, and the way the vehicle policy was written goes against state statute and the constitution.

“I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, but it needs to be fixed,” Montoya wrote. “… I’m disappointed that this administration continues to exclude county elected officials that work and were elected by the entire county and their employees from this process. I don’t even think any other employees were ever given this policy to review because we get those county emails and never received one.”

Heil replied that the county commission is responsible for establishing policy with regard to management of county assets and assuring risks and liabilities are mitigated.

“So whether the elected officials report to the county commission or not, they do need to abide by the policy,” he said.

Montoya wrote that her biggest concern is that the government is for the people, by the people.

“When this body continues to use a quasi-judicial authority to adopt policies and resolutions that are not inclusive of the people it is expected to govern, that makes your intent and governing be questionable by the people,” she wrote.

Heil replied to this comment, saying that Montoya was greatly mistaken.

“This is a legislative process, not a quasi-judicial,” he said. “So I have a real problem with getting an email that was spread out to the world making inaccurate comments with regard to this policy.”

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