County redistricts

Alamogordo Daily News (NM) - Monday, March 19, 2012
Author: Alamogordo Daily News By Laura London, Staff Writer
The Otero County Commission approved a new districting plan following a public hearing Monday morning, and the commission will remain a three-member board under the new plan. 

The public hearing was sparsely attended and brief, following which commissioners voted to adopt Concept A out of four proposed districting maps. The new map is similar to the map the county followed during the last decade, with just a few boundary changes around the city of Alamogordo. 

Four plans had been presented to the county for consideration by Southwest Political Services, the same company that helped the city of Alamogordo and the Alamogordo Public School district redistrict this year. Concepts A and C split the county into three districts, while B and D split it into five districts. 

Sterling Fluharty, Southwest Political Services owner and project manager, said all four plans have population equality as required by law. 

A few of the sparse crowd spoke in favor of adopting a five-district plan. John Badger said he thought Concept B was a good map, adding he thought the whole thing should be decided by a public vote. 

Commission Chairman Ronny Rardin said he didn't think redistricting could go before the public as a referendum. He said the county is bound to follow the state Constitution and state statutes on such matters. 

"The state sets the laws, we have to follow them," Rardin said. 

Mike Jones, who is running this year for the District 3 commission seat held by Rardin, said he was in favor of a five-member County Commission and thought Concept D best. 

"Right now the people on the mountain have no representation," Jones said. "All three of the commissioners live right here in the valley." 

Jones, who currently serves on the Alamogordo Public Schools Board of Education, said one thing that concerns him which Fluharty had discussed with the school board was the concept of "community of interest." Jones said people who live up in the mountains where urban areas interface with the forest do not have the same interests as those in the Tularosa Basin "who are concerned about mesquite bushes growing in their front yard." 

Rardin said he goes to the mountains regularly and visits with constituents, and asked if Jones would not likewise represent Alamogordo if he were elected to the County Commission. 

Rardin said regarding the number of commissioners, he was looking at fiscal concerns and whether the people of the county are being well served by three commissioners. He said he has also not heard from many people who favor a five-member Otero County Commission. 

Rardin said according to New Mexico state statute, a Class A county must have five commissioners. Otero County is a Class B-plus county, meaning it has a choice of three or five commissioners if the county has over $500 million in assets. Rardin said Otero County has over $900 million in assets. He said when the county's population reaches 100,000 then by law it has to go to five commissioners. 

Rardin said commissioners must determine if they are serving their constituents or if service is lacking. He said he understands some people feel they have been let down by the commission and want five members, but he said adding two more seats would cost the county about $200,000. 

Rardin said the present County Commission is a good commission; commissioners don't make decisions based on personal feelings. He said increasing the number of commissioners can also make it more difficult for the commission to reach consensus on issues. 

Rardin said he used to be in favor of having five county commissioners, but now is "totally dead against it." 

Commissioner Tommie Herrell, who represents District 1, said he also was once in favor of going to five commissioners; however, after getting elected to the commission, he realized that there needs to be a consensus on the direction the county is going. He felt that consensus was easier to achieve with a three-member board, and he favored Concept A. 

Herrell said there may be a case for a larger commission if the county was all privately owned, but it is only about 11 percent privately owned with 88 percent government land. He noted the county has no jurisdiction on government land or on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. 

Herrell said he takes calls from constituents all over the county. 

"I get more calls from Cloudcroft and Mayhill and Weed area than I do from my own district," Herrell said. "As a three-member board up here, we represent all of the county, we don't just represent our district. And I think this is something a lot of people are missing." 

Herrell said he is not running for another term when his current term expires, which is December 2014. 

"But what we say today sets the precedence for the next 10 years," Herrell said. 

Commissioner Susan Flores, who represents District 2, said she agreed with much of what Herrell said, noting she has the Mescalero and Holloman Air Force Base in her district. She said adding two commissioners could give Alamogordo citizens disproportionately more representation on the County Commission. 

Flores, who took office in January 2011, said hasn't seen anything this past year that would make her want to add two more commissioners to the board. She said she liked Concept A because it was the cleanest cut of district border lines. 

Rardin said five districts was never an option for him. He said he favored Concept A since it was more clean cut and would make things easier for the county clerk. He said although C also a three-member board concept splits the population more evenly, it makes a mess of zig-zagging district boundaries. 

When Rardin asked county Clerk Robyn Holmes her opinion, she expressed a preference for Concept A. 

Rardin read parts of two letters sent to the commission from Lou and Patricia Wilkerson, who both expressed a preference for a five-member commission. Rardin said aside from one email, those were the only two letters the commission received in favor of five districts. 

The commission then unanimously passed a resolution to revise the district plan according to Concept A. 

During a telephone interview later in the day, Jones said about half the counties in New Mexico have five-member commissions. 

"Almost every county with a population anywhere near ours is five-member because it gives better representation," Jones said. 

Jones noted APS took about three months to get through the redistricting process and held several public hearings. However, the Otero County Commission only had one public meeting on the day before the districting plans were due to the state plus it was held at 10 a.m. when most people have to work. 

"I mean, the disorganization this should've been started months ago," Jones said.