Mayor lets private citizen steer City Commission’s yearly goal setting

by Kathleen Sloan | August 21, 2020
9 min read

Although Rolf Hechler decided not to run for Truth or Consequences City Commission March 2020 and is no longer on the board, Mayor Sandra Whitehead put him in charge of the goal-setting meeting.

The four-hour yearly goal-setting “retreat” was held Aug. 19 at the Black Range Lodge in Kingston, 40 miles out of town.

Whitehead invited Hechler, now a private citizen, to run the meeting, although she forbade members of the public from speaking with the City Commission, even during breaks, showing extreme favoritism for one member of the public, giving him the power to edit and focus the city’s work list.

As elected officials, Whitehead and other members of the City Commission are supposed to apply rules, policies and laws equitably, but that was not the case during the retreat. Private citizens–besides Hechler—were discouraged from attending. They would have to drive 80 miles round-trip and there was no online access or even audio taping of the meeting. There were no microphones at the meeting either.

The July 2019 retreat was the only planning session the City Commission held last fiscal year, which merely stated “future goal setting” on the agenda, which was the same agenda at this year’s retreat.

Although the Open Meetings Act requires the City Commission agenda be written with enough specificity to notify the public of the work of their government, Hechler’s agenda was kept private.

Hechler said the “work list” or “goals list” would serve “as a template to evaluate the city manager.” He said the next evaluation was in October, and since three of the board members were new, he recommended they “keep it simple,” evaluating City Manager Morris Madrid “by a yes or no vote of confidence.”

Hechler’s work list included nine items:

  1. Swimming pool and multi-generational recreation center—Madrid said the pool “is leaking between the inner wall where a metal plate is connected to the gutter that goes around the pool.” The water is seeping into the ground around the pool, making it too unstable as a future site for a multi-generational recreation center. The leak was fixed a few years ago and costs “$80,000 every three to five years to reseal it.”

Madrid said the pool will remain uncovered and used seasonally until a multi-generational center is funded. The site will probably be near the City Commission Chambers building.

City Commissioner Amanda Forrister noted a multi-generational facility is on the Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan that is due to the state Sept. 18.

The ICIP is a five-year planning document sent to legislators, the governor and state departments as a guide in making state and federal funding decisions. If a project is not on the ICIP, it won’t get funded.

The City Commission did not rank or discuss ICIP projects during the retreat, as was decided at the last City Commission meeting. Whitehead instead had Hechler decide the agenda.

The City Commission is not really deciding what projects should have priority on the ICIP either, just as it did not decide what items should be discussed during the goal setting.

Madrid and Wilson & Company, the City’s on-call engineering firm, put the ICIP list together. Madrid said the City must put “water and sewer line relocations” at the top of the list to accommodate the two traffic roundabouts the New Mexico Department of Transportation is constructing.

There are 15 other projects on the list. Evidently the City Commission will rank the other projects at the Aug. 26 meeting, which will determine how soon a new pool/recreational center will be built. The cost is estimated at $13 million.

  1. Branding—Hechler said the branding of Truth or Consequences needs to incorporate the New Mexico State brand “New Mexico True,” in order to garner national promotion and state funding.

During discussion the City Commission decided the Truth or Consequences Chamber of Commerce and the Truth or Consequences MainStreet will work together to decide what the branding will be, and then the City Commission will approve it via a resolution to make it official.

  1. Storm Drainage—Madrid said the City is waiting for the Sierra County drainage study to be finished before starting its own study. “Ours won’t be as detailed,” Madrid said.

Hechler said the City has already “done some of it.” The City “partnered with Western,” he said, evidently referring to New Mexico Western University.

Madrid said “the engineers,” probably referring to Wilson & Company, will start on a City drainage study in January 2021. He suggested the City Commission put this item “in the top five” on the ICIP.

  1. Streets and Sidewalks—Hechler said the department head, referring to Benny Fuentes, “needs to prioritize this and needs to present it to the Commission and explain why.”

City Commissioner Amanda Forrister noted there are four street projects on the ICIP list.

Since the Commissioners will probably rank the projects before Fuentes gives a report, their decision on streets will be largely uninformed.

  1. City Buildings—Hechler said the City “has talked about” purchasing the bank across the street from the current City Clerk’s Office and Utility Billing Office. The bank building “is designed so you can put a second floor on it,” he said.

Madrid said such a purchase is a “lower priority.”

The “NMFA funding,” Madrid said, probably referring to the New Mexico Finance Authority loan for $2.3 million approved at the last city meeting, “will replace IT” at city buildings. He said the library will get new computers. The City Commission Chambers and maybe the Civic Center will get better audio and visual systems.

Other city-building upgrades include resurfacing the parking lot beside the library and City Commission Chambers and new carpeting for the library, which was damaged during the July 26 rain event.

The Animal Shelter is on the ICIP list, with an additional kennel, a bathing area and a common room for adoptions training and orientation to be built onto the existing building. The cost estimate is $200,000. Its ranking by the City Commission will determine when the project will be taken up.

Madrid said Geronimo Springs Museum is writing a $500,000 to $1 million grant to upgrade the Lee Belle Johnson Center.

Hechler said “it should be the northern visitors’ center for the spaceport,” and Spaceport America should pay to upgrade the exhibits it has in the building.

The golf course is doing better since the City took it over, Madrid said. Hechler agreed, stating the subcontractor only got $80,000 to run it in prior years. “It was an underfunded facility,” Hechler said, adding that “It’s a quality of life issue. It increases property values.”

Madrid said he is contacting vendors to stock and run the pro shop as well as the bar, which should bring up revenue. The City’s liquor license has been reactivated but drinks won’t be sold until a vendor is hired. Only about 24 people use the golf course since the pandemic hit, Madrid said.

  1. Signage—Hechler said an internal assessment should be done on street and stop signs as well as billboards and signs provided by the New Mexico Department of Transportation. There is only one NMDOT sign between Truth or Consequences and Albuquerque at the 41-mile marker, he said.
  2. City Staffing and Salary—Hechler said employees stay in the area if there is a chance to “move up” and get pay-raises.

Madrid and City Commissioner Randall Aragon said promotions and pay-raises should be based on “accreditations” and “certifications.” Madrid said he has already put that system into effect.

  1. Grants—Madrid said Grants Coordinator Traci Alvarez’s work load has been lightened by paying Wilson & Company professional service fees to do the work of a building inspector and overseeing planning and zoning issues related to permit applications and the P&Z Commission’s work.

Since Wilson & Company writes grants for capital projects, Madrid did not see a need for a grant writer.

The loans and grants “for capital projects went from $4 million to $20 million in the last 18 months,” Madrid said, which is how long he has been city manager. “Most of that is for infrastructure projects.”

“We may have to slow down some,” Madrid said, “because we’ve reached our administrative capacity” to oversee the projects.

Although the City is paying over $1 million cash from utility fees to fund the electric smart-meter project and it is not a grant-loan project, Madrid reported on it under Hechler’s “grant” heading.

Madrid said the project has been slowed down because Landis + Gyr, the company hired to provide the equipment and to oversee installation, can’t train city staff during the COVID-19 crisis. City staff is to provide the labor for installation.

The smart meters have been installed in city buildings, Madrid said, and the tests conducted so far “are good.”

Madrid said “30 to 50” buildings have been exempted from installing smart meters because of old wiring. Evidently that consideration and equal opportunity will not be extended to other electric customers.

City Commissioner Amanda Forrister asked if businesses and residents will be allowed to opt out of having a smart meter.

Sierra Electric Cooperative recently installed smart meters for its customers without allowing them to opt out, Forrister said. “We shouldn’t let them opt-out either,” she said. “We should be all in or all out.”

Madrid said the City didn’t have to give people an opt-out choice.

Hechler said there should “a public workshop” on the question.

Madrid countered that suggestion with the statement he would put it on the next PUAB agenda.

As an aside, Madrid said the first bills with the increased water rates have gone out, (about a 50 percent increase depending on how many gallons are used). Bills since July 1 also included a 5-percent increase to the sewer rates and a 5-percent increase to the solid waste rates.

“We are starting to see people concerned the rates went up,” Madrid said. “They think their electric rates went up, but they did not.”

Hechler suggested the City correct such misinformation on the City website.

  1. Parks—Hechler said the City has the goal of doing one big park project a year.

City Commissioner Amanda Forrister said Ralph Edwards Park and Louis Armijo Park are on the ICIP list.

Madrid reported Ralph Edwards Park may be finished by the end of October.

The “Riverwalk Trail” is the upcoming parks project, Madrid said. Wilson & Company is doing a feasibility study on the trail in coordination with the Jornada Trail Association.

Hechler said “no one is taking responsibility for the pistol range,” except for a few gun enthusiasts. He suggested the city find someone to live on the property in exchange for utilities. Locking the gate at night and having a person present will stop the dumping, he said.

Madrid said he is still in the process of getting the Bureau of Land Management patent renewed, which gives the city permission to use the land.

At the end of the session, City Manager Madrid said, “I’m glad for the direction. When Traci (Alvarez) comes to me and asks ‘do we have money for this,’ I can say here’s $30,000, knowing the City Commission wants it.”

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

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