Taos Municipal School Board member Arsenio Córdova has responded to the electoral recall effort targeting him by filing a lawsuit against many of those involved.
A local community group, Citizens for Quality Education, is seeking Córdova’s recall, claiming incidents of wrongdoing by Córdova while in office. Córdova’s suit, filed Sept. 18, seeks damages, costs and attorney’s fees, and it attempts to stop the group from filing a recall petition.
It claims the recall effort is politically motivated and was joined by district administrators who are only seeking to keep their jobs in the face of Córdova’s criticism. Rather than naming Citizens for Quality Education, Córdova’s suit names individual defendants: Citizens organizer and former school board candidate Jill Cline, board member and recall supporter Thomas “Chuby” Tafoya, former superintendent Loretta DeLong, former exceptional programs coordinator Jeanelle Livingston, former finance director Elizabeth Trujillo, federal programs coordinator Catherine Collins, director of instruction Rose Martínez, transportation director Esther Winter, and 10 “Jane Does” who are “members or supporters” of citizens for Quality Education.
The suit also challenges Citizens’ standing to file a recall petition, claiming the unincorporated association “lacks the substantive right to vote and hence, to file for a recall petition.” However, state statute de - fines the “petitioner” who in - i tiates a recall as a “person, group or organization,” and the courts allowed the recall of four school board members in Doña Ana County to proceed after being initiated in 2005 by an organization called RECALL (Rectify Educational Concerns About Lousy Leaders).
Besides Cline and Tafoya, whom the suit accuses of having political motives, all the named defendants have filed formal complaints with the state and federal government against Córdova and board president Lorraine Coca-Ruiz, alleging harassment and the creation of a “hostile work environment.” Córdova’s attorney, Alan Maestas, said the defendants “used the courts improperly.”
According to the complaint he filed in district court, the administrators involved in the recall effort want to keep the suggestions made by the IDEAS Company, of Santa Fe, from being implemented; a $50,000 report by IDEAS claims the district is “significantly top-heavy” and suggests the superintendent’s office “reduce the number of highly paid directors.”
“The underlying issue is, who’s in charge?” Maestas said. “Who’s going to call the shots — the administrators or the board?”
However, Citizens for Quality Education attorney Julia Armstrong thinks state statute has an expedient way of dealing with suits like Córdova’s.
“It looks to me like a typical SLAPP suit,” she said. “It’s clearly a question of petitioning the government for a redress of grievances (as protected by the First Amendment).”
A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit aims to “stop citizens from exercising their right to petition or to punish them for having exercised that right,” according to an amicus brief submitted in an earlier suit by former attorney general Patricia Madrid. According to state law, such suits that attempt to “chill and punish participation in public affairs” can be “subject to prompt dismissal” with the plaintiff being responsible for the defendants’ costs and attorney’s fees.
The 2000 lawsuit in which Madrid entered the abovementioned brief involved an Albuquerque developer that was attempting to stop residents from voicing their opposition to a proposed shopping center. According to appellate court records, Geltmore, Inc. alleged nine counts against the residents and neighborhood as sociations that opposed the project, including “malicious abuse of process,” “prima facie tort” and conspiracy — the same counts alleged in Córdova’s suit.
Tafoya was the first defendant whose attorney entered an appearance in the case, and attorney Samuel Herrera also categorized Córdova’s as a SLAPP suit. Herrera sent Maestas a letter Tuesday (Sept. 22) requesting to depose Córdova sometime between Sept. 26 and Oct. 15. According to Maestas’ response faxed Tuesday to Herrera, he wants Herrera’s answer to the suit prior to a deposition.
“From a practical standpoint, having a deposition at this point in the proceedings is likely to be counterproductive,” it states. Herrera said he will act to schedule the deposition with the courts, anyway. Tafoya and DeLong both described the suit as “typical” of Córdova.
“If he wants to use his money to file nuisance lawsuits, it’s up to him,” DeLong said, adding that she looks forward to an opportunity to testify in court. “It has been me and all the others who have been hurt.”
Recall petition to be refiled, affidavits to be reworked
Citizens for Quality Education intends to refile a recall petition against Taos Municipal School Board member Arsenio Córdova after voluntarily dismissing the case against him Sept. 16. Citizens member and former school board candidate Jill Cline said the group will likely refile this week. She said some members of the organization are disappointed with the delay, but Citizens wants to be able to use evidence gathered over the summer.
Las Vegas Judge Eugenio Mathis was not going to hear allegations against Córdova that occurred after May 28, when Citizens first filed its petitions with the Taos County clerk. A hearing date has yet to be set in the case of Lorraine Coca- Ruiz, which has been assigned to Taos Judge John Paternoster.
Mathis also criticized the affidavits Citizens submitted, referring to the three-inch stack of affidavits and supporting documents as a “bible.” Citizens attorney Julia Armstrong said a problem with her office’s word processor led to the affidavits, which she and Cline said were signed Sept. 8 and 9, being dated June instead.
The “June” on four affidavits was crossed out and “September” written in by hand, but four (including those of Cline and board member Thomas “Chuby” Tafoya) still carried only the June date when they were submitted to the court. “I’m bothered by this,” Mathis told Armstrong Sept. 16. “The utmost care should have been taken.” Mathis agreed with points made by Córdova’s attorney, Alan Maestas, about some of the claims in the affidavits not being based on the witnesses’ personal knowledge; he said Citizens needs to submit substantive information based on its clients’ personal knowledge and beliefs.
Mathis also said he shouldn’t have to sift through such a huge amount of information for pertinent allegations, when many of the affidavits cited alleged wrongdoing on the part of board president Coca- Ruiz rather than Córdova. He told Citizens to look for quality over quantity, as the court will take as true the information contained in the affidavits and decide if the facts alleged are sufficient for the recall to proceed.
“Your burden is not a great one,” he told Armstrong.
Armstrong said Citizens has been working to separate the allegations made against Córdova from those made against Coca-Ruiz, and the group will combine the affidavits and attachments to make the file less voluminous and less tedious for a judge to analyze.
“We’re redoing the affidavits, of course,” she said.
The first hearing in Córdova’s case, which was later delayed until Sept. 2, was scheduled Aug. 13; the recall petition was filed with district court June 1, and state statute requires that a hearing be held within 10 days of the petition reaching court. However, judge excusals and scheduling problems kept it from being scheduled until August.