Loretta Trujillo, Questa village administrator, resigned in late February following disagreements with the village’s mayor about who should ultimately bear the responsibility for the monthlong water crisis.
The water outage started the first week of December when one of two municipal wells essentially went dry and water lines lost pressure, leaving Questa’s approximately 1,800 customers without water throughout the holiday season. Service was restored to most customers by Jan. 10, but fixing the problem has cost nearly half a million dollars, money the village doesn’t have readily available.
Questa Mayor Mark Gallegos said Trujillo did not properly discipline employees within the utilities department who were responsible for upkeep of the system and alerting village leaders of a potential crisis.
But Trujillo, who spoke to The Taos News by phone March 14, said as the manager of the village’s day-to-day affairs, she did follow proper — and legal — procedures for disciplining those responsible for the water system.
According to Gallegos, he terminated Trujillo Feb. 6. However, because she was an at-will employee, that decision had to go before the four-member village council. During a special council meeting Feb. 9, elected officials voted unanimously to retain Trujillo against the recommendation of the mayor.
The village council then launched an evaluation of the administrator’s position, according to Gallegos, who is also a Taos County commissioner for the northernmost district.
Attempts by The Taos News to reach council members were unsuccessful. Their phone numbers and email addresses are not available on the village website and the village clerk declined to provide contact information to a reporter. It is unknown if elected county officials received a message for comment left with the village clerk. The village did not provide documentation of the evaluation, nor did Trujillo comment on that matter, citing “personnel issues.”
“Based on the fact that I knew the mayor didn’t want me there anymore, I figured it was time to move on,” said Trujillo, who was employed as the administrator for just shy of three years.
Gallegos claims Trujillo was supposed to provide the mayor and council with a document that sussed out the blame.
“From the day the water crisis happened, there was no accountability except for people pointing the finger at the mayor and council,” Gallegos said. “We needed to know why this failed. We asked [Trujillo] if there was no one to blame or someone to blame – because this was not a natural disaster.”
Trujillo said she never received the direction to provide that document.
“We were supposed to have a meeting to discuss the crisis, but not to assess the blame on anybody,” she said.
“Disciplinary action was taken [within the utilities department] because I was asked to do that, but it didn’t result in a firing. Progressive disciplinary procedures needed to be followed” because the responsible employee does not work for the village on an at-will basis, Trujillo said.
While Trujillo agrees things weren’t done properly by the employee, Trujillo said he had no prior disciplinary records in his file, so she couldn’t just fire him.
“Maybe the mayor wanted someone fired … and apparently, I am going to take the blame,” said Trujillo, who Gallegos described as “top of the food chain” of all village employees.
The severity of the issues with the village’s water supply came to light over the summer, though the problems have been years in the making, as Gallegos acknowledged.
“For 13 years, the discussion has been that Well 2 [which went down, causing the outage] will draw some air because the aquifer gets low,” Gallegos said. “I’ve known that’s how it operates because the directors said, ‘This is how it goes and this is how we manage it.’ I’m not a water engineer. If you say there’s no problem, who am I to tell you there is one?”
Gallegos said he and the council were alerted of the problems in August, when the water storage tanks were critically low, at around 10 percent. The mayor acknowledged the proverbial alarm should have gone off sooner than it did.
But Trujillo told The Taos News she alerted elected leaders about the issues as soon as they were brought to her attention.
As of February, the cost of the outage stood at nearly half a million dollars. Gallegos did not provide more recent estimates or sources of funding that will be used to pay for contractors and infrastructure, including a newly dug well.
However, he said that in Trujillo’s absence, he’s meeting with all 16 village employees twice a day and is planning to repair the remainder of the leaks in the village’s water system starting in early April.
Addendum: The Questa clerk emailed The Taos News the contact information for village councilors March 16 at about 11:30 a.m. The evaluation of the administrator's position is a "personnel matter" and not open for public record, the clerk said.