Secretary of State didn’t investigate election complaints, took TorC city clerk’s word

by Kathleen Sloan | May 4, 2020
7 min read
Truth or Consequences voters should not have to trust, they should be able to verify the special-election results that determined off-highway vehicles are now allowed on city streets, but the Secretary of State rejected requests to investigate irregularities and to verify votes in the all-mail-in ballot election that ended January 15. 

Two people filed complaints, Diana Tittle—who was an officially-designated election observer—and Ron Fenn, a well-known citizen activist. Deputy Secretary of State Sharon Pino responded to both complaints recently, although state law required she respond to the complaints within 60 days or end-of-March. 

Targeted in the complaints were City Clerk Renee Cantin, who ran the election, City Commissioner Paul Baca and Dean Tulk, who spearheaded the ordinance to allow off-highway vehicles. Pino merely accepted City Clerk Renee Cantin’s and Baca’s statements without question. She didn’t question Tulk at all. She didn’t ask for further documentation than those submitted by Cantin, Tittle and Fenn.  She sided entirely with Cantin, Baca and Tulk, dismissing all of Tittle’s and Fenn’s numerous claims.

The special election was the result of a process allowed under a city manager/commission form of government giving city residents more power than a mayor/city council form of government. A petition was circulated giving voters the option to send the question to a vote. About 260 people signed, although only 20 percent or 160 signatures were needed, effectively overturning the City-Commission ordinance passed Aug. 22, which had allowed off-highway vehicles on city streets. 

The people had reason to believe the City Commission allowed outside influences to taint its decision. 

There were few people at the Aug. 22, 9 a.m., meeting to speak for or against the ordinance, giving great importance to emails sent to Cantin. Cantin told Commissioners there were an “overwhelming” number of emails in support of the ordinance, 72 for and 16 against. Four commissioners voted in favor and one against and the measure passed. 

However, public documents Fenn requested and received and gave to the Secretary of State in his complaint revealed Cantin emailed Dean Tulk the day before.

 “Hi again,” Cantin said. “Just so you know, we have received more than 10 letters against the ordinance. . . If you have anyone who cannot make it to the meeting who wants to send something in writing, please have them send it to me at:” 

Tulk emailed Cantin back, copying Paul Baca. He said he couldn’t find the letters in the city packet. “I thought there was a rule that everything that is to be considered be made public in the packet . . .,” showing the need for transparent advocacy in local-law making, more than Cantin. 

Tulk, president of the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Association, put the word out. His mass email attachment is also among the documents Fenn sent to the Secretary of State. “Don’t delay! The meeting is tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. Please copy and paste the message below . . .” 

Cantin was swamped with pro-ordinance emails. Fenn spent days verifying who sent them, also providing those documents to the Secretary of State. Only five of the 72 emails could be verified as from city residents. Most were from out-of-towners and many were from out of state. The City Commission didn’t question Cantin, however, and allowed the outside influence to stand as local support for the ordinance. Deputy Secretary of State Pino gave no response to this portion of Fenn’s complaint. 

Fenn’s complaint included a picture of Tulk and Baca taken by The Herald on Dec. 15 doing a mass mailing of a pro-ordinance message, which went out two days before the ballots were mailed for the citizen-referendum on off-road vehicles. 

Fenn complained Baca violated the Government Conduct Act by using his position to influence the election. 

Baca, in his official response to Pino, said he was “simply stopping at the Post Office to check my mail,” and agreed when Tulk asked him to join the picture. 

Despite catching him mid-act on camera and the caption relating he was mailing the flyers with Tulk, Pino took Baca’s explanation at face value and dismissed this part of Fenn’s complaint.  

Fenn also complained that Tulk and Baca’s political flyer did not designate the campaign sponsor, as required by state law, which states, “It is unlawful for any person, organization or political committee to circulate or distribute any campaign advertising or communication which does not specify the name of the sponsor of such material . . .” 

Having exonerated Baca of wrongdoing, Pino also said Tulk was in the clear. She ignored “person” explicitly stated in the law and claimed “There is no prohibition against a private citizen expressing his or her views on a topic or issue, and in fact the First Amendment protects a person’s right of free speech.” 

However, Fenn’s complaint did not attempt to prohibit Tulk’s message, but rather to make it comply with the law by identifying the message’s political-campaign sponsor. 

Fenn’s complaint also pointed out the sheer number of votes was suspicious, about 1,500 compared to about 600 in the last special election, an increase of 150 percent. He also noted there was only a 68-vote margin that now allows off-highway vehicles on city streets.  

The mail-in envelopes, Fenn complained were see-through, with the “for” and “against” discernable. Pino responded, “Ms. Cantin reported that during a recent discussion held with the vendor, the clerk’s office were assured the envelopes have security printing on the flap which allows for security of the document, as well as for the ballot.” 

Several other voting-security issues delineated in Fenn’s and Tittle’s complaints had to do with the use of scanning a barcode on the outside of the mail-in ballot as verifying that the person who was mailed the ballot filled out the ballot. 

Mail-in elections are the least secure. During a precinct election, precinct board members may ask the potential voter in front of them for their name and address, which they can pull up on a voter-ID list supplied by the county, verifying their status as a genuine voter before issuing a ballot. 

Tittle pointed out, in her complaint, state law requires the signature on the mail-in envelopes be compared to the county’s “signature roster” that was supposed to be delivered to the city clerk’s office on Election Day. As an official election observer, she noted this was not done. 

Cantin’s response contradicted Ernie’s at Automated Election Services and Sierra County Clerk Shelly Trujillo’s, who said the only thing in the barcode was the voter-ID number. No signature was in the barcode.  “The signature roster provided by the County Clerk is included in the AutoVote System and there is no need to deliver the roster on Election Day,” Cantin said. 

Pino accepted Cantin’s response as true, adding “However, there is a secondary check that is in place and is completed by our canvasing board who verifies the signatures.” This also is false. The canvasing board is the Sierra County Commission. Trujillo confirmed that signatures weren’t compared and Fenn attended the meeting, witnessing no verification of signatures. 

The precinct board is also supposed to reject all envelopes with no signature. However, this reporter looked through about 1,200 envelopes and found five with no signature, which inner ballots had been counted by the precinct board. 

There was only a 68-vote difference allowing off-highway vehicles on city streets. Outside interference was proven as promoted by Cantin in emails. Baca’s pro-position and collusion with Tulk was captured on camera and in an email. Deputy Secretary of State Pino subverted at least two laws in her determination letters and did not investigate. That leaves plenty of room to doubt the outcome of the special election. 

The lack of security or investigation by the Secretary of State leaves future special elections and regular elections as questionable as well. Cantin will be running the elections. She is currently blocking an initiative ordinance petition that would lead to a special election if 20 percent of voters sign the petition, showing further disregard for local residents’ political will. In addition, regular elections consist of about one-third mail-in ballots that will be accepted with no cross check.  

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
Share this:

Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

Scroll to Top