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Voting to be more convenient in 2016

—Signpost Staff

Voting convenience comes to Placitas as Sandoval County expands the vote-anywhere concept for the 2016 primary and general elections.

A site for early voting is planned for Placitas, Bureau of Elections Director Eddie Gutierrez told county commissioners at their October 15 meeting.

Voting convenience centers, known as VCCs, first came into use in 2011 in Albuquerque. Polling places are set up to provide ballots for all precincts, so voters aren’t required to vote in their home precincts if another location is easier.

For 2016, Placitas, Bernalillo, and Cuba VCCs are being added to those in Rio Rancho and Corrales. Residents of those five communities can vote as if they were at home.

Voters from other areas can still vote at the centers but will cast provisional ballots, which require a separate counting process to confirm the voter is registered. A total of 26 VCCs will be open for both the primary and general elections.

Adding the Bernalillo center is expected to eliminate conflict that had lawyers rushing to court during the 2014 election. In that case, a state vendor’s programming error at centers in Rio Rancho and Corrales failed to recognize precinct fifty was about half in Bernalillo and half in Rio Rancho.

Nineteen voters were initially denied ballots. All but two were confirmed to have voted later, although it’s not clear if those two also voted later elsewhere.

The ghost of the 2012 general election also continues to haunt the process. In that meltdown under the previous county clerk, hours-long waits blamed on too-few voting machines had many voters leaving in disgust.

That led to a federal lawsuit and an appeal by the county, only settled in September, 2015, with the county paying the plaintiffs $215,000 dollars in legal costs. The federal judge earlier ordered the county to provide more voting machines for the 2014 election, but, by then, the commission had already approved new County Clerk Eileen Garbagni’s election plan that exceeded the court’s requirement.

During their October 15 meeting, commissioners approved Garbagni and Gutierrez’s plan for the 2016 elections.

Gutierrez said the county requests voting machines based on projections of voter registrations and turnout, and has requested ten extra machines as backup. The November 2016 turnout likely will be high because it’s an open presidential year and the entire state Legislature is up for election.

As of mid-October, there were nearly ninety thousand registered voters in the county, he said.

The Placitas convenience centers will be located at the Placitas Community Library and Las Placitas Presbyterian Church. The church also will be an early voting site.

Bernalillo centers will be at Carroll Elementary and Bernalillo Middle Schools on the east side and the Sandoval County Administration Building and Allegria Club House on the west. Cuba’s center will be at the Eichwald Center.

In other action during the October 15 meeting, commissioners heard from UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center president and CEO Jamie Silva-Steele who reported continued growth in patients, clinic, and emergency-room visits and surgeries. With the number of ER visits still high, the hospital is working in communities to direct patients who don’t need emergency services to clinics and primary-care doctors, she said.

Silva-Steele also said that with the federal Affordable Care Act now in place, uncompensated care has slowed to an estimated $2.5 million dollars for this year compared to six million in 2014.

UNM Sandoval is preparing to ask voters to approve a property-tax mill levy in the 2016 election. The hospital anticipates receiving six million dollars this year from the current tax.

During the public-comment section of the meeting, commissioners heard from nine Sandoval County Detention Center officers upset over wages, staffing levels, working conditions, and the impasse in union negotiations. Mandatory overtime and low wages are driving officers away, they said.

The county is currently in negotiations with the New Mexico Coalition of Public Safety Officers, but County Attorney Patrick Trujillo said with talks at an impasse, arbitration is the next step. While commissioners, by policy, listen but don’t comment during the public-comment section, Trujillo specifically advised them against responding, as it would violate the collective-bargaining process.

Wolf advocates were out in force protesting the state Game Commission's denial of a permit to allow the release of more wolves in southwestern New Mexico.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Pronghorns: 1, wolves: 0 as game commission rules

—Bill Diven

The Santa Ana Pueblo wildlife program won a tentative boost from the State Game Commission recently, although federal plans for releasing more wolves in the Gila National Forest didn’t fare as well.

While the pueblo can claim progress, the wolf issue may be headed to a showdown.

A year ago, the tribal Department of Natural Resources expected the game commission to approve relocating forty additional pronghorn antelope to the pueblo as it had for the initial sixty that were rounded up and relocated in 2009-10. Instead, the commissioners raised questions about allowing public hunting on tribal lands, animals straying onto neighboring pueblos, and a need for a formal agreement between the state and tribe.

Those same questions came up again when the commission met on September 29, but this time things were different if not totally resolved. Glenn Harper, manager of the pueblo Range and Wildlife Division, presented language for formal agreement, which commissioners amended and accepted.

The new language shifted the next antelope roundup from this winter to an unspecified future date. Commissioners also gave commission Chairman Paul Kienzle authority to work with the Department of Game and Fish administration on the arrangement and to sign a final document. At last report, the tribal administration was reviewing a draft agreement presented by the department.

Stewart Liley, chief of the department’s Wildlife Management Division, told commissioners that an antelope roundup is not possible this winter. A rancher on whose land the department has captured and relocated five hundred antelope, under a three-year contract, is declining to sign a new contract, he said.

Harper told commissioners the program needs one hundred antelope to establish a sustainable population.

Once a roundup is scheduled, Santa Ana will contribute seven thousand dollars toward helicopter time and veterinarian services. The tribe has contributed $25,000 dollars to past roundups in cash and roundup support from tribal members, Harper added.

The antelope are part of a larger effort by Santa Ana to reintroduce traditional wildlife to the 79,000-acre pueblo beginning in the late 1990s. The tribe created a Division of Natural Resources, hired wildlife and habitat experts, created new water sources, and attacked invasive plants.

Since then, the range has improved with cameras at water sites recording 67 species of small and large game including deer, elk, bear, and mountain lion. Antelope can occasionally be seen, especially during winter on tribal land along U.S. Highway 550 north of Rio Rancho.

After a moratorium on hunting, the tribe is now issuing limited tags for tribal members to hunt large game.

Meanwhile, the commission heard and rejected an appeal of an earlier decision denying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a permit to release additional Mexican gray wolves in the Gila in southwestern New Mexico. Because the topic was an appeal of an administrative decision and not a debate on the underlying issue, the commission didn’t allow public comment.

That, however, didn’t stop wolf advocates from speaking up when members of the audience were asked to introduce themselves.

“I’m reminding you the lobo is indigenous to New Mexico,” one said. “I want you to vote for the health of our state, which I love,” said another.

Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, also voiced support for the wolf program.

The audience was equally vocal after the negative vote: “Shameful” “You’re discredited” “Disband the commission. We have fools up here.”

As it did before, the commission cited lack of an updated federal management plan in upholding the department director’s denial of a permit to release additional wolves. The current plan dates to 1982, and a recent attempt to update the plan broke down.

Last year, the governor-appointed commission established a new rule giving the department administrator the power to approve or deny requests to import and hold large carnivores, pending release, as part of wildlife reintroduction programs.

While about 110 wolves currently roam the Gila, the Fish and Wildlife Service said more are needed to maintain a healthy gene pool.

After the vote, Sherry Barrett, wolf coordinator for USFWS, told commissioners her agency would continue to work with theirs. However, in a later statement, the service said it may go ahead and release ten wolves in the Gila next year given its existing obligations under federal law.

USFWS also exempted its Wolf Recovery Program from a requirement that it collaborate with state agencies. State game officials have not yet said what their next action will be.

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