The recent claim the state lacks a recall process for citizens to petition removal of a local public official, including a sheriff, from office is incorrect. The citizens of this state, including Rio Arriba County, retain enormous, unfettered, unequivocal constitutional powers to remove public officers in a quick and expeditious manner.
The New Mexico Constitution, Article X Section 9, allows for “[a]n elected official of a county to be recalled “by the voters of the county.” A New Mexico sheriff, like any other local elected official, may be recalled for malfeasance or misfeasance in office or a violation of the oath of office. The grounds “shall be based upon acts or failures to act occurring during the current term” of the sheriff or other public office holder. Initially, a petition “shall be presented to the district court” of the county. If the court finds probable cause for a recall after an evidentiary hearing, a petition setting forth the improper or unlawful conduct may be circulated to the voters for signature. At least “thirty-three and one-third percent of the number of persons who voted in the election for the office in the last preceding general election at which the office was voted upon” must thereafter (have their signatures) presented to the county clerk.
In the case of Rio Arriba County, there were 9,709 votes cast for Rio Arriba County sheriff in 2018, according to the N.M. Secretary of State’s website. Thus, a recall petition must be signed by at least 2,916 voters in order for a recall election to be called.
Once the clerk “verifies that the requisite number of signatures of registered voters appears on the petition, the question of recall of the official shall be placed on the ballot for a special election to be called and held within ninety days or the next occurring general election if that election is to be held within less than ninety days.” If a simple majority approves of the recall, then the office is deemed vacant. “That vacancy shall be filled in the manner provided by law for filing vacancies for that office.”
Additionally, the district attorney “must present the accusation to the court” when the district attorney is presented with “sworn evidence” establishing “failure, neglect or refusal to discharge the duties of the office, or failure, neglect or refusal to discharge any duty devolving upon the officer by virtue of his office” or “gross incompetency or gross negligence in discharging the duties of the office” – Section 10-4-2 and 10-4-18 NMSA 1978. The sheriff must show not less than five days and no more than 15 days after issuance of a citation “why he should not be suspended from office until the matters and things alleged in the accusation have been judicially determined.” The claim “there’s no process to place a sheriff on administrative leave” is incorrect. The claim the state lacks a recall process for citizens to petition to remove a public official from office is chimerical.
Finally, the New Mexico secretary of finance and administration may summarily suspend any official of any local public body in all cases where an audit conducted by the state auditor, or by personnel of his office, or by an independent auditor employed or approved by the state auditor reveals embezzlement, fraud “or willful violation of the fiscal regulations of the department of finance and administration.”
The taxpayers and voters of New Mexico are far from impotent when it comes to grossly incompetent or dishonest elected local officials. Government of, by and for the people is still in the citizens hands and hopefully always will be in New Mexico.