LAS CRUCES ‒ Sheriff Kim Stewart was the focus of stern criticism at the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday morning over comments the sheriff made at a community event last week.
Stewart had just left the chambers after announcing a break in a 37-year-old unsolved murder case when Commissioner Diana Murillo accused Stewart of scapegoating the board for a lack of school resource officers in the southern part of the county.
“This is all misinformation, making us the commissioners look bad, like we’re not doing our job,” she remarked.
On Aug. 4, Stewart was part of a panel discussion in Anthony focusing on school security within the Gadsden Independent School District, most of which is located over a large area of Doña Ana County south of Las Cruces including communities that do not have municipal police departments but are covered by the sheriff’s department.
Explaining during the Anthony forum why her agency did not provide full-time school resource officers (law enforcement officers posted at school sites) for the district, Stewart pointed to the budgeting process. The county began its 2022-23 fiscal year on July 1.
“…this year, we’re down in numbers overall,” Stewart said. “We could use 25, 30 deputies. I asked for 12 for the fiscal year 2023, and I was denied the 12. What can you do? Your commissioner, I don’t think is here. Chaparral has another commissioner now because of redistricting . Those are the people that really need to be lobbied.”
Stewart has cited staffing shortages in previous interviews regarding SROs, telling KFOX television in June, “We just don’t have the number of personnel we had 12 years ago.”
Murillo, who is the mayor of Anthony as well as a county commissioner representing Anthony and other communities within Gadsden ISD, had not been present at the forum, she said, because of a funeral. Having heard about the sheriff’s comments following the meeting, Murillo said she had some questions.
‘Throw under the bus’
“Did we ever vote on bringing 12 officers for the sheriff, and when was this?” she asked.
Chairman Manny Sanchez replied that they had not, although there may have been a discussion about adding positions at a preliminary budget meeting in June.
Commissioner Susana Chaparro recalled the sheriff asking commissioners for additional money, but remembered the request being for $50,000 for a new server.
Continuing her criticism, Murillo said the sheriff’s department had 19 vacancies as of last week and said, “Common practice in local government, county government, or even state government — you need to fill your positions first before asking for more officers.”
Murillo then turned to the budget, pointing out that the sheriff’s department did not use $2.3 million of its $25.2 million budget for the previous fiscal year.
“DASO has gotten the biggest total budget this year than the last 10 years,” Murillo said, adding: “They have the money to get those vacancies filled.”
Referring to the sheriff’s comments, Murillo complained she had been “thrown under the bus with my fellow commissioners.”
‘The commission has properly funded all departments’
The discussion erupted during a part of the agenda regularly scheduled for commissioner comments. Commissioner Shannon Reynolds said it wasn’t the appropriate venue to air the issue and suggested a follow-up meeting with the county’s human resources office to better understand hiring processes.
That’s when county manager Fernando Macias entered the discussion, saying the matter in dispute was not to do with HR any more than the commissioners.
“There are, as we speak right now, 44 total vacancies in the sheriff’s department,” Macias said, a figure which includes all administrative personnel at DASO. He also said that approximately 19 positions had remained vacant for three to four years while the board had approved two new detectives, three evidence technicians and a mobile evidence collection unit.
Under questioning from Reynolds, Macias said the county government currently had 979 authorized positions in total, of which 780 were filled. He added that county departments are rarely granted additional staff members if they have vacancies.
“The suggestion that the commission has failed to do its responsibility is false,” Macias declared. “The commission has properly funded all departments with adequate numbers of personnel.”
When Reynolds suggested HR bore responsibility for filling positions that had been funded, Macias was having none of it, retorting: “It’s the responsibility of every department, especially in this hybrid system that we have with elected officials. They bear a burden to ensure that If there is some kind of issue they have every opportunity to raise that kind of concern in terms of not being able to fill positions.”
Press criticism and a possible explanation
At that point, Reynolds shifted to criticism of news reporting about the meeting, which had been covered by the Las Cruces Sun-News and CBS-4 television. Turning to Murillo, Reynolds said, “I apologize that you were attacked by the paper; I don’t think that was fair, or the county being attacked by the paper without due diligence, without understanding what was going on.”
Reynolds was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.
“The issue becomes where facts are not all put out there by the paper,” Sanchez said during the meeting, “so it becomes not a full discussion of the facts that are available.”
Stewart was quoted in the Sun-News as the elected head of her agency. A Democrat, Stewart was elected to her first term in 2018 and is seeking reelection on Nov. 8. The county commissioners are Democrats as well. Stewart’s Republican challenger, Byron Hollister, has also criticized her over the SRO issue.
Following the meeting, Sanchez told the Sun-News that departments submit budget requests to the county manager for review and a preliminary budget is presented to commissioners. He said a request for deputies had been dropped during that meeting but that Stewart had not raised an objection when she had the opportunity.
“The DASO budget increased from $22.7 million to $25.2 million from last fiscal year to this fiscal year,” he elaborated. “I felt that over-10-percent increase was a sizeable amount given that the department was already the largest in the county in terms of dollars. The county manager had asked my thoughts on her original request and I suggested to him to see what was absolutely necessary for this budget year. After the discussions, I believe the request for deputies was dropped at the time.”
That left open the possibility that Anthony Stewart may have been describing a budget request that was dropped before commissioners voted on the final budget.
Sheriff Stewart responds
Stewart said she had not been aware Murillo planned to raise the matter in open session. “I am sorry the commissioner did not ask me to remain to answer her concerns,” she wrote Tuesday afternoon.
In an email, Stewart told the Sun-News DASO has 26 unfilled law enforcement positions, including an undersheriff position that has been vacant since January, two lieutenants and a sergeant plus 22 deputy positions. She said four lateral transfers were in the application process, leaving 18 positions, and she wrote, “We must keep vacant positions open for cadets.” She expected nine cadets will graduate from the academy’s current class.
Stewart also acknowledged 18 civilian vacancies, some of which are required for various assignments and some left open “for the purpose of reclassifying outdated positions to better fit our needs.” Those reclassifications require approval by the county manager, and Stewart claimed Macias was not currently approving them.
As reported previously in the Sun News, Stewart and Macias have engaged in ongoing disputes over hiring and promotions at DASO.
Responding further on Tuesday, Stewart called claims that DASO didn’t use $2.3 million of its budgeted dollars “disingenuous” and said $2 million was from salaries for unfilled positions plus savings in operational costs.
“It is complicated and that is something folks talking without a full understanding of how this works are at a disadvantage,” she wrote.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.