Editor’s Note: This three-part series reports on which candidates showed up at Tuesday’s forum at the Albert J. Lyon Event Center and what they revealed about their qualifications and grasp of the challenges facing the bodies they seek to lead. Part 2 covers the candidates running for Village of Williamsburg trustee and City of Truth or Consequences commissioner.
Three community members presided at a local government candidates forum held at Sierra County’s Albert J. Lyon Event Center on Oct. 19, two weeks before the general election on Nov. 2.
Village of Williamsburg resident and community event planner Denise Addie hosted, while Elephant Butte real estate agent and resident Cathy Vickers and Truth or Consequences real estate agent and resident Sid Bryant served as moderators of the candidates Q & A sessions.
The local governments included in the forum were the Truth or Consequences Municipal School Board (see Part 1), Village of Williamsburg Board of Trustees, Truth or Consequences City Commission and the Elephant Butte City Council.
Addie said the candidate questions were generated by local residents from each jurisdiction. Candidates chose their questions from a hat, but since there were only three or four questions to choose from, nearly the same questions were answered by each candidate.
Each candidate was given one minute for an introductory statement and another minute to make a closing statement after the Q & A.
VILLAGE OF WILLIAMSBURG
Addie explained that Carol L. Woods chose not to attend the forum because she is running unopposed for another term as municipal judge. Trustee candidates William N. Frazier, Paul James Mora and Majorie E. Powey did not want to attend an indoor event that they feared would further community spread of the COVID-19 virus, Addie said.
Two seats are open on the five-member board, with Frazier, Misty Gwen Gustin and Kell A. E. Took and running for one of the seats and Paul James Mora running against incumbent Majorie E. Powey for the other. Both positions are for four-year terms.
MISTY GWEN GUSTIN
Gustin said she is the owner of Windmill RV Park in the village. She has four children, among them Amanda Forrister, who is currently mayor pro tem of the Truth or Consequences City Commission. Gustin said she has 30 years of experience in “accounting and administration, and I have a lot of common sense.”
Asked what she would make her top three priorities, if elected, Gustin said: “I would increase transparency. When development projects are in the works, citizens don’t find out until later.” Her second priority would be “infrastructure and roads.” Her third priority would be to “protect the environment.” “We need to build green,” she elaborated.
During her closing, Gustin said: “The village needs to have a development strategy that benefits all citizens. It’s gotten away from the understanding that they work for the people.”
KELL A. E. TOOK
Took currently works for Sierra County and worked for the New Mexico State Veterans Home in the past. Her duties involve coordinating with state and local governments. “I would like to work with all other communities to strengthen Sierra County and hopefully bring some new ideas,” she said in her introduction.
Asked about her top three priorities, Took said, if elected, she would work to “increase public input, to find out what village residents want.” Her second priority would be “to strengthen ties to other local governments to work on economic development.” Her third priority echoed Gustin’s. “The environment,” Took said, “needs to be protected, as well.”
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
Running for a third four-year term, Mayor Sandra Whitehead texted Addie minutes before the start of the forum to announce that she would not be attending because “she may have been exposed to the virus,” Addie told the Sun.
Addie offered no explanation for the absences of incumbent City Commissioner Paul Baca and candidates Ron Fenn and Joseph Louis Schwab.
There are three seats open on the T or C city commission.
Candidates vying for Position 1, which is for a four-year term, are Whitehead and Destiny D. Mitchell.
Candidates vying for Position 3, which is for a four-year term, are Baca, Merry Jo Fahl and Ingo Hoeppner.
Position 4 is for a two-year term, having been vacated by Brendan Tolley four months after he was sworn in in 2020. Tolley’s successor, Frances Luna, who was appointed to the position last October, is not running. Competing for the seat are Ron Fenn, Rolf M. Hechler and Joseph Louis Schwab.
DESTINY D. MITCHELL
Mitchell introduced herself as a “lifelong resident of Sierra County,” who graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1998. She earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in geography at state universities.
She has served as a volunteer leader of various community organizations, including “teen court as a youth,” the T or C recreation advisory board and MainStreet Truth or Consequences.
“I was a city employee for 20 years, mostly seasonal,” Mitchell said. “It gave me an understanding of how the city does and doesn’t function. I will make sure we can create progress for all members of the community. I am a voice for youth and seniors.”
“In this age of division, how can we create a family atmosphere?” Mitchell was asked. Looking around the auditorium, she responded,: “I see about 60 percent without masks and 40 percent with in this age of division. Communication is all about what we all consider collectively acceptable and choose to move forward with in a healthful way.”
Mitchell promised to be receptive to community input. “Some [residents] bring complaints, some lacking solutions,” she said. “We should be listening to our constituents who could give us insights into problems we have, not just ignoring problems. We need to find an amicable balance.”
Given the constraints on the city’s budget, Mitchell was asked on what issues she would focus.
“I’m not familiar with the current city budget,” she acknowledged, “but know we need to focus on infrastructure and support for T or C. When I started 20 years ago, 15 people worked in the recreation department. Now four people work there. It is difficult for one to person to take on more and more. We need to find a way to work within the budget so we can get things done that will improve quality of life.”
In her closing, Mitchell said, “I would be held accountable to you. If I don’t have the answer, I will find out. I am capable of learning.”
Hoeppner, the proprietor of Ingo’s Art Café downtown, said he is “an air force veteran,” who was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base for 16 years. He is also a founding member of the nonprofit local youth organization, ACT (Acknowledge Create Teach). Currently he serves on the city’s recreation advisory board.
Hoeppner was asked to comment on conditions at the municipal pool. “When it comes to the recreation budget, we never have money,” he responded. “We are trying to plan ahead. I’m happy we remodeled Ralph Edwards Park. We got the leaks fixed at the pool, but there is nothing in the budget for enclosure. I hope we can get grants. I am fighting that our playgrounds get shade structures and a new skate park.”
Asked how he would enhance the downtown historic district, Hoeppner said “beautification through grants” was possible. He emphasized the need for wayfinding signs.
In his closing, Hoeppner invited people to stop by his coffee shop with any additional questions for him.
MERRY JO FAHL
Fahl introduced herself as a “lifelong resident,” who has “raised four sons here.” She “worked in every bank in town” before joining the staff of the Sierra County Soil and Water Conservation District, where she served for 30 years. “I learned how to work with state and federal agencies,” she said. One of the projects she spearheaded before she retired five years ago was the three-mile Healing Waters Trail. For the last couple of years she has been working as a volunteer leader of the Turtleback Trails project.
Fahl fielded the question about the community pool by observing that there are “lots of opportunities for grants” to improve it. “Maybe we could develop a hot springs pool system like Colorado,” she suggested.
“Pools and golf courses don’t make money,” Fahl continued. “They are services. We need to figure out how to make them work.”
Asked how she would help the historic district downtown, Fahl said its success is dependent on tourism and recreation. “When [visitors] come in, we want them to stay and eat and shop—and then go. We don’t have infrastructure to support significant growth.” Fahl recommended that the city work with MainStreet and the museum to promote the historic district.
In her closing, Fahl said: “I want my grandson to love this town. We need our kids to stay here. We need to be true partners to grow our community.”
ROLF M. HECHLER
Hechler served as a T or C city commissioner for four years, stepping down in 2019. Intending to be humorous, he said he is “up for a little more punishment.”
Having just spent $100,000 on remodeling his house, Hechler said he plans to make T or C his forever home. He and his wife moved to the area in 1987. Landing a job at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, he said “within seven years I was supervisor and then became regional manager,” overseeing nine state parks. Bored in retirement, he took a job at Spaceport America as a guard, eventually becoming “head of safety and security.”
Asked why he is the better choice than his opponents, Hechler said, referring to their failure to show up at the forum: “For one thing, I’m here.”
He went on to say: “My experience and background lends itself to being a city commissioner or even city manager.” His experience working at the state park gave him planning and zoning experience and enabled him to “know the many complex issues the city faces.”
Is Main Street downtown healthy? Hechler was asked. “It’s starting to be healthy,” he responded. “We [city commissioners] approved a [Local Economic Development Agency] grant for the T or C Brewery. We need to find a good replacement for Linda DeMarino [who recently resigned as MainStreet T or c director]. The hot springs is the heartbeat of our community. We need to work with the hot springs folks to enhance that. Our hot springs need to be open; our restaurants need to be open” in order to attract tourists and events such as golf tournaments.
During his closing, Hechler asked the audience to wait to vote until the Sierra County Sentinel newspaper published its Q & As with the candidates. “Be informed,” he advised, adding: “I want to do a good job for you.”