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Blame spirals as CRRUA governing record ‘misplaced’ and never sent to state


Blame spirals as CRRUA governing record ‘misplaced’ and never sent to state

Apr 17, 2024 | 5:50 am ET
By Danielle Prokop
Blame spirals as CRRUA governing record ‘misplaced’ and never sent to state
The Doña Ana County Government Center captured Tuesday, April 16, 2024. County officials said they failed to file paperwork that would allow a change in governing board members for a troubled Southern New Mexico utility. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

A process to install a new governing board at a troubled Southern New Mexico water utility has been held up for months, with county officials saying in public meetings that the state’s approval on a document was needed.

But the document never made it to the office of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.

Now, blame abounds.

Paperwork to change oversight of the water utility that sent contaminated water to residents’ taps, among other issues, got lost in the shuffle. The Camino Real Regional Utility Authority is facing state investigations and further scrutiny after a series of water quality issues revealed CRRUA sent water with high levels of arsenic to residents for more than a year.

After years of negotiations, the city of Sunland Park and Doña Ana County signed off on a new joint powers agreement at a Feb. 13 meeting. That agreement renewed the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority (CRRUA) contract to provide water and wastewater services in Sunland Park, Santa Teresa and unincorporated areas in the border region

A joint powers agreement — often shortened to JPA — allows multiple public bodies to establish a new public body, such as a water utility like CRRUA. All joint powers agreements require state approval.

Officials said they have been waiting several months for the state to approve the joint powers agreement so the search for new CRRUA board members — and establishing trust in the utility after water contamination issues — could begin.

‘There’s no trust in CRRUA’ Doña Ana commissioners grill officials from water utility

Doña Ana County board chairman Christopher Schaljo-Hernandez said he first heard on Tuesday that the document was not submitted to the state, following questions from Source New Mexico to the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.

“Today is the first day that I had been made aware of it, which is quite strange, as the commission from the dais multiple times have asked for updates on the (joint powers agreement),” Schaljo-Hernandez said. “We’ve always been told that legal reached out, and it’s still sitting there.”

This also contradicts reports made by Doña Ana County Manager Fernando Macias at an April 9 board meeting that the state had the joint powers agreement documents.

Schaljo-Hernandez characterized the recent reports from Macias to the Doña Ana County commission board as misleading.

“I mean, we’ve been asking for updates, and I guess Mr. Macias never called, or never had anyone call, or else this could have been caught months ago,” Schaljo-Hernandez said.

Macias denied that and said he thought the joint powers agreement document was submitted to the state by the Doña Ana County attorney’s office.

“It was my understanding that it was already up (in Santa Fe),” he said. “That was incorrect, but it wasn’t intended to be intentionally misleading.”

Instead, Doña Ana County never formally submitted the document to the state, Macias said Tuesday.

Macias took his turn to pass around blame. He said a clerical error from the Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office prevented the documents from going to the state. He outlined a process where the county clerk’s office seeks signatures for official documents, and said it was the responsibility of the staff there to return it to his office.

“It appears that when the commissioners signed that document, that it was misplaced. I can’t describe it any other way,” Macias said.

Macias told Source New Mexico that he obtained a new copy of the joint powers agreement from Sunland Park and county officials, and will formally submit the document to the state Wednesday morning.

County Clerk Amanda López Askin denied her office lost any document. She said her office has never lost a document before and can account for all other documents from the Feb. 13 county commission meeting that needed signatures.

“That leads me to believe that it was not included in those documents, and that it was, basically, never given to our office,” López Askin said.

López Askin said Macias and the county legal team only asked her about the document last week, and said she was hearing for the first time that the record was “misplaced” after speaking with Source NM.

“What’s surprising to me is that such an important document has taken months to track down. If we allegedly had been responsible for it, you think we would have been alerted months ago,” she said.

County commissioners cut short Macias’ contract in December after a dispute with the board over annual evaluations. His final day as Doña Ana county manager is April 30.

What was the agreement?

The amended joint powers agreement would shake up who sits on The Camino Real Regional Utility Authority governing board, move zoning power in unincorporated areas back under the county’s authority and extending the life of the previous agreement, set to expire in 2029.

The amended agreement also lets either party end the agreement and dissolve CRRUA, but the utility would remain in place for four years.

The current CRRUA governing board has two county commissioners, two members from the city of Sunland Park and two appointees from the state legislature.

The new seven-member board will have three appointees from the county and four appointees from the city of Sunland Park. Three of appointees will be required to have technical knowledge and water expertise, and one member from each of the city and county governments.

The new agreement also calls for the city and county to appoint two “independent representatives” who are not employed by either the county or the city, who have “interest in public utility oversight” with a technical background.

A timeline

Source NM made inquiries about the timeline to approve the document to the Department of Finance and Administration following the April 9 Doña Ana County Board meeting.

On Monday, April 15, a spokesperson for the agency said that the joint powers agreement was never received.

“Please note, these do not take long to approve,” wrote Henry Valdez, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance and Administration, in an email to Source NM.

The responsibility for sending over the documents was in the county’s hands, said Javier Perea, the mayor of Sunland Park, in a phone call Monday.

Valdez said Tuesday that entities typically submit documents by email, but occasionally receive them by mail.

When initially reached for comment Monday, a spokesperson for Doña Ana county directed Source NM to file a public records request.

Macias then said in further interviews Tuesday that the agreement was not submitted to the state.