Fight corruption, start locally
To hear our candidates tell it, Santa Fe is just one big cesspool of corruption. It sounds good in an ad. But state government, which has more scrutiny, often runs second to local governments (including tribal governments) in muck.
The fact is, New Mexico operates in a haze of dubious dealings. Whether it’s the paving of a church parking lot, an Air Force flyover to celebrate a new car dealership, a woman supporting her gambling habit out of school funds, or board members treating their rural electric cooperative as a financial cushion, it’s all around us.
“New Mexico has never been known for its honesty in government from way back yonder,” an old timer told me lately.
The hallmarks of local corruption are all too familiar:
• Control rests in the hands of one individual, clique or family, and they run things to better themselves and not necessarily the community.
• Government contracts and business are awarded to political insiders and their friends.
• The payroll is loaded with family members and cronies.
• An audit, if there is one, turns up curious expenditures.
• Decisions are made behind closed doors.
• The same power brokers have been in office for years.
• Voter fraud and voting irregularities crop up too often.
• Anybody who asks questions or challenges “the way we do things around here” will be harassed, intimidated or even physically assaulted.
Does any of this sound familiar? What are you doing about it?
Caveat No. 1: There was once a flap in Grants when the town awarded its office-supply contract to a store owned by a city councilor. Trouble was, his was only one office-supply store in town, and avoiding a conflict of interest meant driving an hour to the next town. Ethical decisions aren’t always black and white.
Caveat No. 2: Let’s remember that the vast majority of public servants are honest.
State Auditor Hector Balderas has been speaking around the state on what he calls an epidemic of waste, fraud and fiscal abuse. He’s advised school districts and local governments to guard their check stock, reconcile expenditures monthly, control inventories of everything from furniture to gravel, and invest in regular audits.
“You cannot predict what kind of person is going to commit malfeasance,” he said recently in Truth or Consequences, but you can limit opportunities.
Of the fraud his office has found, 46 percent resulted from a tip, 33 percent from an audit, and 21 percent by accident. What he looks for is a culture of honesty and ethics that starts at the top and a code of conduct that addresses conflict of interest and gifts.
Former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson makes the same point in a commentary that appeared on NMPolitics.net. She was talking about state government, but some of her comments apply to local government: “When there is a strong ethical culture in an organization, employees are empowered to engage their peers and take action to resolve problems, and this is more effective than external review.”
She recommends a Civil Service Protection Act that would keep elected officials from soliciting political contributions from employees who work for them, prohibit placing people in jobs for which they’re not qualified, and strengthen whistle-blower protections.
New Mexicans are no worse than residents of other states. Public servants who serve themselves first will always be with us, so the systems we have in place to keep watch and clean house are important, but systems are only as good as we are.
And when the candidates promise you they’re going to clean up Santa Fe, and they’re lying about each other, what does it tell you?
© 2010 New Mexico News Service