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Rio Arriba County government shake-up raises concerns

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, center, and other members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee look through data sheets on February 3, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been nearly a week, but Rio Arriba County is still processing the sudden decision to replace its longtime county manager, Tomas Campos.

County commissioners voted 2-1 on May 3 to not extend Campos’ contract, which is set to expire on June 30, and immediately offered the position to Lucia Sanchez, forgoing any application or interview process. Commissioners James Martinez and Moises Morales cast the deciding votes.

The decision followed a five-hour executive session. Multiple county employees told the Journal that the board’s decision caught them off guard and was an emotional shock for many.

It’s still unclear why Campos’ replacement was selected before an application process could begin. Martinez had told the Journal it was to create a “smooth transition,” although it appears to have had the opposite effect.

Now, other officials within the county are expressing their dissatisfaction with what they saw as a breakdown in the process.

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, happened to be at the county building during the meeting and said she didn’t like how Martinez and Morales handled the decision. She referred to the incident as a “back room deal.”

“I just thought it was the totally wrong way to do it,” Herrera said.

She said it could significantly impact the county, which has worked to rid itself of a reputation for backhanded deals and corruption.

“We’re trying to get away from that,” she said, adding Rio Arriba had been very successful in doing so. “This didn’t have to happen.”

And the sudden change in management might shake up the county’s entire organizational chart. Multiple top officials within the county could leave their positions in the coming weeks, sources within the county told the Journal.

One of those officials is Economic Development Director Chris Madrid, who has worked for the county for eight years. He said Monday’s decision has put much of his work on ice.

He said that, during his tenure at the county, he had frequently turned down opportunities elsewhere, but that the sudden shift in management had changed his tune.

“The county deserves a thoughtful transition to make sure that we don’t skip a beat,” Madrid said. “I’m operating blind right now.”

The nature of Sanchez’s appointment has led some, such as Commissioner Christine Bustos, to believe that Martinez and Morales had discussed hiring Sanchez as manager before Monday’s meeting, which, if true, would be a violation of the state Open Meetings Act.

Bustos said her fellow commissioners had entered Monday’s meeting with Campos’ replacement already picked out.

State law forbids a quorum of a governing body to discuss public business outside the context of a public meeting. For the three-person commission in Rio Arriba, any conversation between two commissioners could violate the law if pertaining to public business.

Neither Martinez nor Morales returned multiple requests for comment.

A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office said Friday no complaint had been submitted regarding the meeting.

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