Editor’s note: Here are The Taos News editorial team’s picks for the top stories of 2012. They appear in no particular order.
Housing authority embezzlement scandal
After federal agents swooped down on the Taos County Housing Authority offices in late 2011, the embattled agency has struggled to find its footing.
Former executive director Carmella Martínez and her husband were recently indicted on 49 counts related to an alleged embezzlement scheme dating back to 2003. Federal prosecutors allege that Carmella Martínez redirected housing assistance funds that ended up in bank accounts held by her and her family. The couple has pled “not guilty” and is awaiting trial.
Amid the allegations, the housing authority has come under a microscope. In February, The Taos News reported that a brother of commissioner Nicklos Jaramillo had been a landlord for years while Jaramillo sat on the housing authority board. Authorities said the situation could constitute a conflict of interest.
A few months later, an outside consultant came in to sort out operations. The consultant issued a report that, among other issues, found that many staff members were completely unaware of the rules they were supposed to be following. The report also concluded that some staff members believed they could not be held accountable for their job performance because they were politically connected.
Shortly after the report came out, two housing employees (including Jaramillo’s nephew) were let go.
Now, a year after the allegations of wrongdoing first surfaced, there are concerns that the agency is still in limbo. A growing community interest in Taos’ critical need for affordable housing this year served to make the issues at the housing authority — and the need for reform— even more poignant.
Town, Pueblo ink airport agreement
In a historic day in Taos’ history, the FAA, the Town of Taos and Taos Pueblo government finally came to an agreement that would allow critical developments to the Taos Regional Airport Oct. 6.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta was on-hand to announce the FAA’s Record of Decision — the final step in a decades-long Environmental Impact Statement, which will give the airport a new crosswind runway. He announced the FAA will award a $1.05 million grant toward the $20 million project.
The new crosswind runway will measure 8,600 feet long by 100 feet wide and will allow planes to land and take off more safely in high winds.
Tribal officials said in October that after years of negotiations, they were finally confident they’d been heard when it came to environmental considerations for flying over certain sacred areas of the reservation.
As Taos Mayor Darren Córdova put it: “They wanted to protect their living World Heritage Site. Who would not want to do that in our community?”
Moving forward, both sides were optimistic about the future both of Taos and Northern New Mexico.
“This year, I found out we were very good neighbors,” Taos Pueblo Gov. Laureano Romero said at the October summit. “I’m very happy to sit here now.”
Broadband project starts, halts, resumes
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative’s $64 million broadband project got under way over the summer before hitting a snag.
The project, funded through a combination grant and loan under the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), aims to make broadband Internet service available to all the businesses and residences Kit Carson serves.
In a September 2011 order, the state Public Regulation Commission (PRC) ordered Kit Carson to “spin off” its Internet division in an attempt to protect electric ratepayers. The RUS stopped work on the project in October, saying it “did not receive official (or) timely written notice” of the PRC order.
Co-op CEO Luis Reyes said at the time he had been in touch with RUS officials about the PRC’s decision, though he did not send the RUS written notice about the PRC order, and that Kit Carson leaders “don’t know what triggered” the RUS’ action.
About 100 workers were ordered to cease operations while the situation was resolved. The PRC was quick to act, voting unanimously Oct. 16 to rescind its Sept. 11 spin-off order so work on the broadband project could proceed. Commissioner Jason Marks was critical of Reyes at the Oct. 16 hearing, however, saying the situation could have been handled better.
The project, expected to employ about 300 in total, has a completion date of Feb. 2015.
—Matthew van Buren
Taos Pueblo Water Rights/Abeyta pact
After more than 50 years of fighting and 23 years of bargaining, the pieces of the Taos Valley’s grand water settlement began to fall into place this year.
The deal — hashed out by Taos Pueblo, the town of Taos, acequia users and a number of domestic water providers — is meant to resolve disputes over who has a right to how much water, now and in the future.
The final agreement included a number of creative solutions. New wells will be dug and water will be pumped over-ground for miles. In some cases, water from Taos’ rivers will be pumped underground to be used at other times of the year.
All told, the settlement will cost taxpayers around $150 million, mostly from the federal government.
The payoffs for the agreement are supposed to be many: First and foremost, everyone in the deal feels more assured that they will have enough water, even if growth continues. Second, there are hopes that the bargain will improve relations among neighbors by allowing water adversaries to bury the hatchet following decades of dispute.
The pact is no doubt a major accomplishment in complex negotiation. There are naysayers who worry about the unforeseen consequences of shuffling water rights from above ground to underground, as well as up and down the Rio Grande.
While a few minor details remain unresolved, water transfers are already taking shape and the settlement parties have inked several contracts solidifying the deal. Over the next several years, the infrastructure of the Abeyta will be put in place and we will find out if things will go as smoothly as hoped, bringing (in the words of Taos Pueblo) “peace in the valley.”
Pair accused in convent fire and death
It was one of the most heartbreaking stories of the year.
The morning of Aug. 8, Taos awoke to news that the Old Convent Building originally built by Mabel Dodge Lujan for her son was burning down.
The historic building on La Posta Road had not been used for commercial purposes for some time. Investigators initially thought the fire was an act of arson and that calls had been made to divert first responders to the Río Grande Gorge Bridge.
The truth, it turned out, was much worse.
Taos Police investigators Barry Holfelder, Jerry Hogrefe and John Wentz eventually pieced together the evidence that told the whole story: That 39-year-old transient Christian Payton had not only been in the building at the time of the fire, but that he’d been badly beaten and mutilated. His injuries, investigators suspected, had prevented him from speaking clearly when he called 911 for help. Payton’s body was recovered from the building Aug. 22.
A series of tips, interviews and new evidence led investigators to suspect and eventually arrest William Patrick “Train-Hopper Red” Smith, 24, and Deborah “Raven” Jaramillo, 28, in the fall.
The two stand accused of first-degree murder, arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit arson in the incident.
Old Martina’s Hall opens despite county opposition
The year began with a fourth vote by the Taos County Commission to deny a beer and wine license to Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, but the business finally opened after the state reversed the decision.
The former “Old Martínez Hall,” renovated and rebranded by businesswoman Martina Gebhardt, had gone back and forth with commissioners for several years. Feb. 21, 2012, the commission voted for a fourth time to deny Gebhardt’s request for a beer and wine license. Members of the public — mostly supporters of Gebhardt’s — filled the commission chambers for the Feb. 21 vote.
Commissioners once again cited the hall’s proximity to the San Francisco de Asís Church, across the street in the Ranchos Plaza, as its reason for voting against the license.
“If people don’t think I made the right decision, well, election time is coming up. They can vote me out,” former commissioner Andrew Chávez, who lost his seat in the June primary election, said at the time.
However, in a June 13 written decision, the state Alcohol and Gaming Division reversed the commission’s vote. According to the decision, the commission lacked “substantial evidence” to support its “no” vote.
Taos County appealed the decision to district court in Santa Fe. Incoming commissioners Tom Blankenhorn and Gabe Romero, along with commissioner Dan Barrone, have said they intend to drop the suit.
Old Martina’s Hall opened for business in September — two years after the county commission first denied its application for a beer and wine license.
—Matthew van Buren
Taos County shakeup
Things at the county administration building got pretty ugly following the June primary.
Incumbent county commissioner Andrew Chávez took a drubbing at the polls and had seven months to stew in his defeat before stepping down. At the same time, fellow commissioner Nicklos Jaramillo would also term out at the end of 2012 after a decade on the board.
Perhaps not by coincidence, things at the county heated up as the two got closer to leaving.
County manager Jacob Caldwell was the first causality, followed shortly by the jail director and emergency management director. In December, the commissioners finished the purge by “eliminating” the position held by deputy county manager Rick Bellis.
Increased investigation into the commissioners’ behavior led to a spat of unflattering coverage. The Taos News ran stories about the lame duck commissioners spending hundreds of dollars to travel to conferences, including a class designed for jail employees attended by Jaramillo. The paper also published articles about questionable payments the county made over several years to a nonprofit administered by Jaramillo and his brother.
At one of his last meetings, Jaramillo appeared indignant, calling the coverage a “witch hunt.” He had previously insisted that the county attorney write a letter clearing him of wrongdoing. The attorney responded that she could write such a letter when he provides financial records for the nonprofit proving everything was on the up-and-up.
Administrators’ lawsuit dismissed
More than two years after it was filed in federal court, a lawsuit filed by Taos school district employees was dismissed with prejudice.
Eleven administrators, including former superintendent Loretta DeLong, named the Taos school district, school board, former superintendent and state Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, former board members Arsenio Córdova and Lorraine Coca-Ruiz, current board member Stella Gallegos and the IDEAS Company, of Santa Fe, as defendants.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in 2010, alleged the defendants engaged in micromanagement and retaliation. The plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages, as well as reimbursement of attorney fees and legal costs.
The suit followed complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a recall effort that targeted Córdova and Coca-Ruiz and investigations by the Public Education Department (PED).
The court found deficiencies in the plaintiffs’ filings, noting a failure by DeLong to prove she had been discriminated or retaliated against and a more general lack of specificity among other charges.
“I always thought this was a weak case for the plaintiffs,” attorney Kevin Brown told The Taos News in October. “They just didn’t have enough (evidence).”
—Matthew van Buren
Taos family questions justice under deportation threat
A family’s nightmare came true for the Reyes family, as patriarch Julio Reyes was threatened with deportation after a traffic stop made him vulnerable to immigration laws.
The officer contended that Reyes was stopped for running a stop sign, and when a machete was seen in Reyes’ truck and Reyes presented what the officer believed to be a fake social security card, he was detained for questioning.
While in jail, immigration authorities were alerted to Reyes’ status as an illegal alien. Reyes and his family contended not only that the arrest was unwarranted but he was brought into the U.S. from Mexico as a child, and was forced to work as a servant until he was an adult.
Detained in federal custody, Reyes’ family came under threats and has struggled in his absence. Friends and former employers came out in droves to defend Reyes’ story as true and vouch for his character.
In a time of American history where relations with Mexico are a sensitive subject in the Southwest, the case forced many Taoseños to ask themselves tough questions about what it is to be of El Norte.
Peralta, Gonzales win council seats
The Taos Town Council underwent a shift in March, when Fred Peralta and Andrew Gonzales won council elections and took their seats on the four-member panel.
Former councilor Gene Sánchez did not run for re-election last spring, and Amy Quintana ran unsuccessfully for a second term. Both were outspoken critics of the proposal to move emergency dispatch operations into the Kit Carson Regional Command Center, and Sánchez in particular often found himself at odds with Mayor Darren Córdova.
Gonzales and Peralta were victors from among a field of candidates that included local businesspeople Judi Cantú, Linda Knief and Pavel Lukes.
The issue of “big box” development came up frequently before the election, as a developer’s application to build a Family Dollar in El Prado was withdrawn at the end of 2011 after it sparked substantial opposition. Peralta and Gonzales said the town should work to protect open spaces, agricultural lands and other natural resources.
During the campaign, Gonzales and Peralta both spoke to the importance of the tourism industry and revitalizing Taos’ Historic District, among other initiatives. They also encouraged the formation of partnerships with local businesses groups and community organizations.
—Matthew van Buren