The Truth or Consequences City Commission held a special meeting on Nov. 29 to interview four candidates competing to fill an empty commission seat. The three commissioners who will vacate their seats in January—Sandra Whitehead and Paul Baca (who were defeated for reelection) and Frances Luna (who decided not to run)—joined with returning Mayor Pro Tem Amanda Forrister in choosing Shelly Harrelson.
Harrelson, who has not participated in city commission meetings or served on other city boards, is a fourth-generation resident of the area. Commission watchers could have predicted her appointment. As the Sun has reported, it had been foreshadowed at the commission’s regular Nov. 17 meeting, when Commissioner Baca made a surprise motion to seat Harrelson without interviewing the other persons who had submitted letters of interest. Mayor Pro Tem Forrister immediately provided a second.
Baca, who had been among those who submitted a letter of interest, did not say whether he had withdrawn his candidacy before he made the motion. There was no call for clarification from the other commissioners or from the city attorney, leaving the public to wonder whether Baca, if still a competitor for the seat, had a conflict of interest in advancing Harrelson.
Instead, Commissioner Luna and Mayor Whitehead papered over Baca and Forrister’s squeeze play by insisting that the commission go through the motions of conducting interviews with all four candidates: Art Berger, Rick Dumiak, Ingo Hoeppner and Harrelson.
At the Nov. 29 special meeting, candidates were each given five minutes to describe why they should be appointed to the position before being questioned by the commissioners.
None of the questions asked dealt with the candidates’ abilities to handle crisis issues, such as multiple ongoing breakages in the city’s unmaintained 50-year-old sewer and water systems or costly emergency well field and electrical transformer repairs or crippling budget shortages and deficits.
The questions that were asked revealed the commissioners’ settled beliefs that the native born are best suited to lead, public comment directed to the city commission is useless and often bilious and city commissioners work as a team in support of city staff.
The summaries of the highlights of the candidate interviews that follow are meant to give the reader an idea of the thinking processes, values, opinions and articulateness of both the commissioners and the candidates. Quotes have been transcribed verbatim from the meeting audiotape supplied to the Sun by City Clerk Angela Torres.
RICK DUMIAK INTERVIEW
Candidate Dumiak, who has regularly attended city commission meetings and public workshops over the last two and half years, was typically brief. “I want to be involved in this community. I have been since I moved here three years ago.”
Dumiak went on to outline his experiences serving on public boards and government projects, where he helped to draft and manage budgets of up to $450 million. He also cited his experience in “interagency communication,” joking: “I have worked with every government agency known to man.”
Mayor Pro Tem Forrister, now in the second year of a four-year term, asked a question that she would repeat with all three candidates, setting up a pattern followed by the other commissioners, who each also asked the same question of each candidate. Forrister and Luna took the lead in asking follow-up questions.
“What improvements would you want to see if chosen for this seat?” Forrister inquired of Dumiak. “Better communication between the commission and residents,” he responded. “There is a lot of misunderstanding typically on a lot of items that come up.”
Commissioner Baca asked: “When a citizen calls you and complains about a city employee or their utility bill or their service being out, or any other reasons, what do you see as being your responsibility as being a commissioner and what action will you take?”
“I’ll definitely listen to them,” Dumiak said. “I would see what the problem is and try to help if I can, but honestly, it should be referred to the department or city manager. . . . I think there is a misunderstanding that the commissioners can turn the golden key for everybody . . . you try to understand the problem, talk to the person, but also explain that it’s not really the commissioner’s responsibility.”
Mayor Whitehead asked: “What portion of the community do you feel you will represent if you are selected commissioner?”
“I look at the bath district,” Dumiak said, “and I feel that that area has really been kinda—I hate to say it—but left to rot. There are so many derelict buildings there and so many things have gone wrong downtown. The crime is crazy. I’ve got a crack house across the corner from me. That area really needs help. That would definitely be the area I would be concentrating on.”
Taking offense at these comments, Commissioner Luna said: “Mr. Dumiak, you have done nothing but belittle, downgrade, talk negative about the city staff, the commission, our leadership, our police department, our zoning, our codes. You just spoke about the crack house across the street from your house. You have done nothing but be antagonistic of this commission and our city. How do you turn tail and sit right here and represent the people you have done nothing but talk trash about?”
“Well, I disagree with you,” Dumiak responded. “I haven’t talked trash. I’ve pointed out weaknesses, and, yes, I have been critical. I do point out things I feel are critical needs that need to be changed, and, yes, I have been vocal on Facebook because we get no comment [from the city commission]. We come up here, speak for our three minutes, and we generally get ignored. And I am tired of it. Everybody is tired of it, quite honestly. That’s why the results of the election are what they are.”
“So how do you think you will now sit here and represent the people?” Luna asked.
“The same way I’ve been saying I will represent the people all along,” Dumiak said. I’ll do what I think is right for the people. And I’ll listen to the people, which I feel has long not been done.”
ART BERGER INTERVIEW
T or C newcomer and government management consultant Art Berger explained how his professional experience was relevant to the city’s needs and offered theories and solutions for “challenges” the city faces.
Berger moved to Truth or Consequences last March, having visited many times over the years. Ruminations precipitated by the pandemic led Berger to the conclusion that “either Santa Fe had outgrown me or I had outgrown Santa Fe, and I came to appreciate what Truth or Consequences has to offer historically and currently.”
He continued: “I opened a branch office of my consulting firm here. It’s a 32-year-old New Mexico corporation that advises governments around the country.” I also decided to open an art gallery. . . . Three members of my family followed me here.”
Berger said he became involved in city issues the first month he moved here. The city commission was then considering whether it should adopt as part of T or C’s municipal code about 300 pages of PNM (Public Service Company of New Mexico) electric utility standards. “I did not take a position,” Berger said. “I simply pointed out some of the challenges you would have in making the decision, the largest part of which was the amount of material—and nobody truly understood at that stage what those [regulations] would mean across the board, the intended and unintended consequences.”
Berger also referred to the comments he had made at a city commission meeting on T or C’s proposed purchase of smart meters for its water customers. “Again, I took no position,” he said. “I tried to point out that in my experience, small populations and small estimates of returns on investment are volatile. They are not stable and they are not very reliable. I didn’t have much time to speak, or I would have also pointed out that a 13-year break-even point is no good investment for a government, particularly for technology that will likely be obsolete before you pay off the bill.”
Turning to his qualifications for the position, Berger said: “What I bring—I’ve worked with every state. I’ve worked at every level here in New Mexico. I’ve worked with every administration nationally since Reagan and every administration in New Mexico since Anaya [Toney Anaya, governor from 1983 to 1987]. I’ve worked with the courts. I’ve worked with the election system. In fact, my firm can personally guarantee you that your election system is impenetrable, because that’s the kind of work we do.
“I understand a great deal about what is going on,” Berger continued. “We also recently did oversight on the budget system for local government at the Department of Finance and Administration.
“So, what I’m saying is, there are some challenges in this town. There’s a lot of talk about budget deficits, but personally, I think the biggest challenge is revenue. The revenue scheme here is regressive. That means it hurts the poorest people the most and that causes us to be constrained on our ability to support another set of challenges—our infrastructure.
“I’m not trying to change the town,” Berger concluded. “I think we’re losing our grip on the town. And I think there are ways, if I participated as a member of the commission, I might be able to help you turn that around.”
At the end of Berger’s introduction, Forrister asked: “What changes would you want to implement?”
“That’s a little bit of a tricky question,” Berger replied. “As commissioners, we don’t implement. This is a city manager-commission structure of government. It’s not the mayor-council [form of government]. So, in this case, our city manager is the implementer. I would do whatever I could to endorse and advise the city manager in that process. I don’t believe our role would be to tell him how to do it. What we would like him to do—but not how.”
Baca asked how Berger would deal with citizen complaints.
“I would go ahead and shoot a note to Bruce [T or C City Manager Swingle] that said: ‘Hey, somebody’s told me about this.’ I think the worst thing commissioners can do is stick their heads into the middle of these kinds of issues. It really kind of weakens your role,” Berger said, “it doesn’t improve it.”
Whitehead asked what “portion of the community” Berger would represent, if chosen.
“I find it startling . . . there is such a divide in a small town,” Berger said, going on to suggest that perhaps the city would be better off “if we were operating more or less on a county level and not a city level. So, you’ve got these small villages around us. If we had the combined seven thousand, eight thousand residents, we’d have a slightly better economy of scale. So that is my biggest concern about what’s going on. I don’t represent any part. I have a business down in the historic district. My home is not in the historic district but north, on the river. To me, this town, if you get rid of the different factions—and who are, by the way, arguing national political issues, when we are not about that—this is a nonpartisan place; we’re running a city. So I wouldn’t accept that divide.”
Forrister asked a follow-up question: “Just living here since March—we’ve all lived here a very long time—the constituents we represent call us and we try to hear their complaints and fix that. How are you going to go out and get your constituents—who didn’t vote for you because you weren’t able to run—to get them to voice their opinions and concerns and support you? How are you going to mesh that together?”
“I tend towards the gregarious,” Berger said. “I think all commissioners and other representatives of the city really need to do more open, more outreach. I would attend a lot more community events . . . I would do my best to be visible and listen.”
Luna also had a follow-up question and statement: “I feel you are a very strong candidate for this position. You bring a lot to the table, but I’m going to tell you that sitting up here, we have to have our personal experiences and we need to bring those personal experiences to the fore to make the right decisions that benefit the community as a whole, the art district, the downtown. And we have to remember it is truly not the visitors who are the number one industry and tax base for Truth or Consequences, but the ag [agricultural] producers who reside in the unincorporated part of the county. That said, I am also concerned about your short time living here, having lived here my entire life, and the fact that you’re not going to have the ranchers, who do not and will never vote for you, but who are a strong tax base for our community. They’re not going to have the connection to call you. So that concerns me. I’m being honest with you. But my biggest concern is how you take your personal consulting experience and you take it forward but you don’t force it upon the board. Explain that to me please? How do you take that knowledge and not start doing business for the City of T or C?”
“Well, if I were on the commission,” Berger said, “there would be no compensation. Maybe I didn’t understand that last comment. You’ve covered quite a bit of ground. First, I would suggest you have five commissioners. Four of you have long histories in the town. So having a fifth one does not significantly improve or reduce that. I understand I would be a different sort.
“Secondly, the major concerns—yes, it’s good to know Susie down the street has had a meter issue for 13 years, it’s important to know that personally in a town this size,” he acknowledged. “At the same time, the problems in this town are not going to be solved by our neighbors. We need to really look seriously at our revenue structure; that’s number one to me. And you mentioned the tourist industry. They are not the major part of this town, but they are not paying their fair share. The impact of the tourist industry on this town is significant, and it is not reflected in the amount of revenue they provide for us. So that’s one area I would say that, while I lack the long history in the town, I bring something that perhaps the commission can benefit from that it doesn’t already have.”
INGO HOEPPNER INTERVIEW
Born and raised in Germany, Ingo Hoeppner said he served in a German air force unit while it was stationed in New Mexico from 1996 to 2006. He moved from Alamagordo to Truth or Consequences in 2018, opening a coffee shop downtown and serving on the city’s parks and recreation advisory board.
He ran for city commissioner in 2019 and 2021, losing both times.
Forrister asked Hoeppner what changes he would want to implement.
“Like most people here, I see the infrastructure as a big problem,” Hoeppner said. “But also, with this new infrastructure thing, we have new opportunities to get different grants, because it is the small towns’ time now to get from the big budget something . . . I believe in the future we will qualify for a lot of things.”
The second change Hoeppner said he wanted to implement was “promoting the downtown businesses. I believe we can increase the income, decreasing the burden on local citizens, who don’t have big budgets.”
Forrister asked Hoeppner how he would promote the downtown. “Branding,” he replied, elaborating: “If a small community is not branding itself, sooner or later a big corporation comes and makes the decisions for the city . . . mostly benefitting the one who brings the money.”
Baca asked how he would handle complaints from residents.
“I would acknowledge the problem and I would like to follow up and ask the city manager where the problem lays,” Hoeppner said.
Whitehead asked: “What part of the community would you represent?”
“I represent the City of Truth or Consequences,” Hoeppner said. “We are all in the same boat . . . the job is to represent everybody.”
Luna asked: “How do you feel about the city’s involvement in the hospital’s ownership?”
“The hospital is part of our community and infrastructure,” Hoeppner said. “Yes, I believe the city should be involved in its decisions. With the plans of having mental health, I believe is a good idea. This mental health is a big problem, what we have.”
SHELLY HARRELSON INTERVIEW
Harrelson introduced herself as “a fourth-generation Truth or Consequences person.” She explained: “My grandparents moved here and settled the Palomas Creek area. My grandmother graduated from this high school right here. My mom graduated from Hot Springs High School. I graduated from Hot Springs High School, and I have a daughter who graduated from Hot Springs High School, and I have another one coming up through the system, and I feel that I know the community, and I feel I am a rural person.
“I really feel part of the reason I am throwing my name in the hat,” Harrelson continued, “is I have a vested interest in trying to grow our work force. I think in Truth or Consequences we have a really big issue with not keeping our youth in our own city.
“Professionally, I worked for the state of New Mexico. I worked 17 years in the classroom. I needed to touch more children than the 20 in my classroom, so I moved to Santa Fe. . . . I split into another area, which is PED [New Mexico Public Education Department]. I work at an at-home office here in Truth or Consequences.
“In Santa Fe, in my leadership position, I have oversight of legislative funding. We have about $27.5 million to split all over New Mexico, and we have oversight, so when legislative funding comes through the state, we are responsible for oversight and assurances.
“I have also supported grants, so when legislative grants come out you have to—the funded PED at this point—before the money goes to communities, an application process is put out and the community fills out the applications and the departments, before the money is allocated, develop what is called a grant reader.
“I also do a lot of statewide professional development and webinars for professional growth for employees and professionals in the state. A lot of that is really trying to grow professionals and keep them in the communities.”
Forrister asked Harrelson about the improvements she would implement as commissioner.
“This is a committee [the city commission]. It’s not really in charge of anything. What we are in charge of is hearing constituents’ complaints and what I’ve heard endlessly is lots of complaints coming in, and I think that’s because, maybe, as the committee here, people aren’t feeling heard and, somehow, maybe when complaints come in, there is some sort of communication back to the public in the form of the newspaper, Facebook, maybe the front page of the city, what those complaints are.
“Secondly, with that, I think that we as taxpayers also need to have an idea, we are coming to you with a complaint or suggestion; there is a cost to that . . . I think there should be a number put to that . . . and maybe the community understands there is a dollar amount to that—that’s not a free service.”
Baca asked Harrelson how she would handle residents’ complaints.
“You need to make the person feel that they have been heard,” Harrelson said, “and that goes directly back to the city manager, because that is the responsibility of the city. It is really the commission’s responsibility to hear what they are saying.
Whitehead asked: “What portion of the community do you feel you will represent?”
“I feel like I literally have family who live here,” Harrelson said, “and I live here and a daughter who attends school here. So I think I am more cross-generational and I think I would really represent more of the entire town and different ages of the community.”
Continuing with her theme of perceived public disrespect for elected representatives, Luna said: “I’ve seen the volleyball mom, Shelly, and you can’t be the volleyball mom here. So my question is how do you deal with someone standing there and calling you stupid and belittling the people you are appointed to the position to represent and talking down about every decision you’ve ever made? How do you deal with that?”
“So, me personally,” Harrelson said, “I try to stick to what the guidance and protocol is for what the work is, and I think that is my position in any part of life. I try to stick to the guidance and stay within the realm of what the guidance is and I try to brush off all the other stuff, because there is a level of that in any political, slash, public position. You’re going to have that, that heat, regardless of what positon you are in.”
Luna then asked: “How do you feel about the city’s involvement in the hospital’s ownership?”
“In my experience,” Harrelson said, “you need to look at the communities and how that’s working in their communities and the pros and cons against that. I think you don’t make decisions without getting references from the outside and not just making decisions solely on your own experience.”
DEPARTING AND NEW COMMISSIONERS WEIGH IN ON THEIR ROLE
After thanking the candidates for applying, Luna noted: “I think it says a lot that with the exception of Ingo, all three of you have lived in Santa Fe and live here now.”
Harrelson interrupted and said she had worked but not lived in Santa Fe.
“Oh, worked there,” Luna said. “Never mind. I thought: ‘They really are all coming here.’”
Luna then addressed city residents, giving what sounded like a farewell. “Sometimes,” she observed, “you can’t see the forest for the trees and sometimes the people who sit here and complain don’t understand the things we understand at budget times and all the other times. Knowing what we know, it may look like we’re making the wrong decisions, but I promise you we all sit here with the same goal in mind.”
Whitehead also made a farewell statement after thanking the four candidates for applying. “Like Commissioner Luna stated, we all work together,” Whitehead said, “we all have to come together to make anything happen. That, as a commission up here, we can listen, but it takes a majority to do anything. . . .
“I’ve heard it a lot as I’ve sat on the board that we didn’t get anything done. Well, again, the manager is the one who really needs to hear—not to make a decision—but the commission, like I said, it takes a majority . . . Like Commissioner Luna said earlier, the public has really slammed us lately and we’re tough; we can take it.”
Forrister also thanked the applicants before advising them: “This position does mean something. We do work together and try our best to have an impact on the community.”
To the departing commissioners, Forrister said: “It’s been a pleasure working with you three. I have learned a lot.”
She then gave the three incoming city commissioners seated in the audience the opportunity to comment.
Merry Jo Fahl, elected in November to Position III, said: “I’m glad you didn’t ask me those questions. I would have fainted.”
Destiny Mitchell, elected in November to Position I, said: “I’m excited to see that there are so many different people interested in the open position and people who are relatively new to town. I know that kind of goes against them in the favor; I can say that because I am a local. But it’s nice to see that, when somebody moves to a community, that they are unabashed and kind of go for it, and I think that shows character. I know I’m in over my head already, so I just hope you guys make a decision that you think would be right for the next two year, and I just thank you guys for putting this together.”
At the conclusion of Mitchell’s remarks, Forrister asked her: “How long have you lived here?”
“I moved here in 1986,” Mitchell said.
“Merry Jo, how long have you lived here?” Forrister asked.
“I’m not going to tell you,” Fahl said, “but a very long time.”
Forrister also asked Rolf Hechler, elected in November to Position IV, how long he had been a resident.
“I moved here in 1987. One year less than Destiny,” Hechler said.
“I beat all of you,” Fahl said.
Forrister then invited comment from Hechler, who had previously served a four-year term as a T or C city commissioner, stepping down in 2019.
“I’ve been on that side of the table before and I share a lot of the sentiments,” Hechler said. “But I also want to say that one of my favorite things that I like to see is public comment . . . People come before us and a lot of them work really hard to cram that information into [their allotted] three minutes.”
“The way I deal with folks who are antagonists or mad at us,” Hechler continued, “I basically have to tune them out. What I mean by that is, when they come up here, you want to listen to the substance of what they say. But if it is lost in the way that they say it, in other words, if they cut down some employees or they call us names, they lost the whole message.”
Hechler advised the commissioners to consider diversity when choosing among the candidates. “I like diversity on a board. We want to hear different opinions and we want to be able to hash things out between different viewpoints.”
His point was not taken.
THE FORESHADOWED VOTE
In a replay of what happened at the Nov. 17 commission meeting, Baca then made the motion to appoint Shelly Harrelson to the seat, which was quickly seconded by Forrister. Mayor Whitehead did not call for discussion. The vote was unanimous for the fourth-generation native.