Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
An administrative assistant in the Bernalillo County Human Resources Department claims she at times devoted up to 80 percent of her work week doing tasks on behalf of the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council, where until recently she also held the title of executive secretary.
The county has halted its involvement with the council after legal staff determined it was in violation of the anti-donation clause of the state Constitution, as well as the county’s employee code of conduct and conflict of interest regulations.
In addition, the county believes the employee may have used county funds to pay for MLK council office supplies.
Jewel Hall, a founder of the MLK council, past president and current director of communications, said there isn’t enough work to take up 80 percent of someone’s workweek – that, at most, an employee may have spent a total of 40 hours a year helping the council – and she was unaware of any supplies purchased for the nonprofit by the county.
She was surprised when notified of the county’s decision, saying a cooperative arrangement between the county and the MLK council has been ongoing, in some form or another, for decades.
Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca told the Journal she was only recently made aware of the county’s involvement after the HR employee went to the county Compliance Office to discuss the matter.
After conferring with the county’s legal department, Morgas Baca said that, although she supports the mission of the council, she “immediately stopped the practice” and asked county officials to determine if there was a memorandum of understanding, written agreement, contract or procurement method used to justify why the county was providing the services. None could be found, she said.
Asked the value of the county employee’s contribution to the MLK council, Morgas Baca said it was difficult to determine, but the employee, who began working for the council last July, earns $13.73 an hour.
Clause not clear-cut
When informed that the county was discontinuing the arrangement, Hall responded with a letter to the County Commission in which she wrote: “It is very surprising that after 27 years and under six different county managers that Bernalillo County now cites the anti-donation clause as a reason to terminate what has been a very productive partnership.”
Under the anti-donation clause, the county cannot legally or financially subsidize or commit resources to private corporations or nonprofit organizations without anything in return, “no matter how noble or worthy the venture,” Morgas Baca said.
According to the MLK Multicultural Council website, among those listed on the board of directors are Vice President Renetta M. Torres, who, following an internal nepotism investigation earlier this month, resigned as Bernalillo County’s director of human resources; and executive secretary Rhiannon Montoya, who works as an administrative assistant in the Bernalillo County Human Resources Department.
The county and other sponsor agencies who provide “in-kind services” receive recognition by the MLK council “in all of its publications, materials and on its website,” Hall said. “It has been the understanding of the council that the recognition of the sponsors is deemed to be the ‘consideration’ called for, and satisfies the provisions of the anti-donation clause.”
She pointed to another governmental sponsor, the Albuquerque City Council, which donated $15,000 for 2016 and $15,000 for 2017. According to a “Sponsorship Agreement,” the MLK council agreed to include “the City of Albuquerque City Council and logo on all signage, press releases, and conference programs as a sponsor.” A finance officer with the City Council said the agreement was vetted by the city’s legal department to make sure it was not in violation of the state’s anti-donation clause.
County spokeswoman Tia Bland said it was fair to acknowledge that “perhaps the anti-donation clause isn’t as clear-cut as it could be and finding the line to determine what’s appropriate and inappropriate might be challenging for some.”
However, “Bernalillo County believes assigning a full-time county employee to serve as executive secretary to a nonprofit crosses the line.”
Other in-kind sponsors, such as the University of New Mexico, Central New Mexico Community College and Albuquerque Public Schools, provide volunteers for the MLK scholarship reception, or help in screening scholarship applications, or reading and scoring the essays, Hall said.
The mission of the MLK Multicultural Council is to educate the public on the ideals and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each year, the organization sponsors a competition in which college-bound high school students submit essays detailing how King’s philosophy and works impacted their own lives. Last year, 29 students were each awarded $1,000 scholarships.
The council is an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff. The county employee in question “could not possibly have volunteered more than 40 hours for the entire year, and most of that time was probably attending monthly meetings and taking minutes,” Hall said. “We don’t have that kind of structure or workload – period.”
She added that she was unaware of any supply purchases paid for by the county and noted that the organization doesn’t have an office. “We meet once a month at Congregation Albert from 3 to 4:40 p.m.” Most communications are done via email by Hall.
Renetta Torres was assigned to the MLK council by then-County Manager Juan Vigil, replacing county employee-designate Richard Silva when he passed away, Hall said. Montoya was assigned to perform MLK duties by her then-supervisor, Dorothy Astorga, now an executive assistant at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Astorga told the Journal on Monday that she was simply “continuing a practice that had been going on for many years.”
Morgas Baca said there did not appear to be any criminal intent involved, “but as county manager I’m responsible to the taxpayers and have to make sure we follow procurement codes and make sure that taxpayer dollars are used in a fair and responsible manner, consistent with our obligation to the public and within the law.”
She also said that the county supports the mission of the MLK Multicultural Council. “We stand with them in the advancement of the ideals of Dr. King, and still desire to cultivate a positive relationship with them, and want to work with them in ways that are consistent with policy and law.”