LAS CRUCES — Sheriff Kim Stewart faced harsh criticism at the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday morning over comments the sheriff made at a community event last week.
Stewart had just left Chambers after announcing a break from a 37-year-old man unsolved murder case when Commissioner Diana Murillo accused Stewart of scapegoating the board due to the lack of school resource officers in the southern part of the county.
“This is all just misinformation, making us commissioners look bad, as if we’re not doing our job,” she remarked.
On August 4, Stewart was part of a round table at Anthony focusing on school safety in the Gadsden Independent School District, most of which is located over a large area of Doña Ana County south of Las Cruces, including communities that do not have municipal police departments but do are covered by the sheriff’s department.
Explaining at the Anthony forum why his agency has not provided full-time school resource officers (enforcement officers stationed at school sites) for the district, Stewart pointed to the budgeting process. The county began its 2022-23 fiscal year on July 1.
“…this year we’re down overall,” Stewart said. “We could use 25, 30 deputies. I asked for 12 for the 2023 financial year, and I was refused the 12. What can you do? Your commissioner, I don’t think he’s here. Chaparral has another commissioner now because of the redistricting. These are the people who really need to be tapped.”
Stewart cited staffing shortages in previous interviews regarding SROs, tsale of KFOX television in June“We just don’t have the number of employees we had 12 years ago.”
Murillo, who is the mayor of Anthony as well as a county commissioner representing Anthony and other communities within Gadsden ISD, had not been present at the forum, she said, due to a burial. Having heard about the sheriff’s comments after the meeting, Murillo said she had a few questions.
“Throwed Under the Bus”
“Have we ever voted to bring in 12 officers for sheriff, and when was that?” she asked.
Chairman Manny Sanchez said no, although there may have been some discussion of adding positions at a preliminary budget meeting in June.
Commissioner Susana Chaparro recalled the sheriff asking the commissioners for additional money, but recalled the request was for $50,000 for a new server.
Continuing his criticism, Murillo said the Sheriff’s Department had 19 vacancies last week and said, “Common practice in local government, county government or even state government – you have to fill it first. your posts before asking for more officers.”
Murillo then turned to the budget, pointing out that the sheriff’s department missed $2.3 million of its $25.2 million budget for the previous fiscal year.
“DASO got the biggest total budget this year than the last 10 years,” Murillo said, adding, “They have the money to fill those vacancies.”
Referring to the sheriff’s comments, Murillo complained that she was “thrown under the bus with my fellow commissioners.”
“The commission has properly funded all departments”
The discussion erupted during a part of the agenda regularly scheduled for Commissioners’ comments. Commissioner Shannon Reynolds said this was not the appropriate venue to air the issue and suggested a follow-up meeting with the county’s human resources office to better understand hiring processes.
That’s when County Manager Fernando Macias entered the discussion, saying the issue at hand was no more about HR than it was about commissioners.
“There are, as we speak right now, a total of 44 vacancies in the sheriff’s department,” Macias said, a figure that includes all of DASO’s administrative staff. He also said about 19 positions remained vacant for three to four years as the board approved two new detectives, three evidence technicians and a mobile evidence collection unit.
Asked by Reynolds, Macias said county government currently has 979 total authorized positions, of which 780 are filled. He added that county departments rarely receive additional staff members if they have vacancies.
“The suggestion that the commission has not taken responsibility is false,” Macias said. “The commission has properly funded all departments with a sufficient number of staff.”
When Reynolds suggested that HR had a responsibility to fill the positions that had been funded, Macias didn’t care, retorting, “It’s the responsibility of each department, especially in this hybrid system that we have with elected officials. They have the burden of making sure that their positions are filled. If there is any kind of problem, they have every chance of raising that kind of concern in terms of not being able to fill positions .
Press criticism and possible explanation
At that time, Reynolds moved on to criticize news reports about the meeting, which had been covered by the Las Cruces Sun-News and CBS-4 television. Turning to Murillo, Reynolds said: “I apologize that you were attacked by the newspaper; I don’t think that’s fair, or that the county is being attacked by the newspaper without due diligence, without understanding what is going on. passed.”
Reynolds was unavailable for comment Tuesday afternoon.
“The problem becomes where the facts are not all published by the newspaper,” Sanchez said at the meeting, “so it doesn’t become a full discussion of the available facts.”
Stewart was quoted in the Sun-News as the elected official of his agency. A Democrat, Stewart was elected to her first term in 2018 and is seeking re-election on November 8. County commissioners are also Democrats. Stewart’s Republican challenger, Byron Hollister, also criticized her on the ORS issue.
After the meeting, Sanchez told the Sun-News that departments submit budget requests to the county executive for review and that a draft budget be presented to the commissioners. He said a request for an alternate was dropped at that meeting, but Stewart did not raise an objection when given the opportunity.
“DASO’s budget has gone from $22.7 million to $25.2 million between last fiscal year and this fiscal year,” he explained. “I felt that an increase of more than 10% was a significant amount given that the department was already the largest in the county in terms of dollars. The county manager had asked my opinion on his initial request and I suggested to him to see what was absolutely necessary for this budget year.After the discussions, I believe that the request for deputies was abandoned at the time.
This left open the possibility that Anthony Stewart could have described an abandoned budget request before the commissioners voted on the final budget.
Sheriff Stewart responds
Stewart said she was unaware that Murillo planned to raise the issue in open court. “I am sorry that the commissioner did not ask me to stay to address her concerns,” she wrote on Tuesday afternoon.
In an email, Stewart told the Sun-News The DASO has 26 unfilled law enforcement positions, including an undersheriff position vacant since January, two lieutenants and a sergeant as well as 22 deputy positions. She said four lateral transfers were being applied for, leaving 18 positions, and she wrote: “We need to keep vacancies open for cadets. She expected nine cadets to graduate from the current academy class.
Stewart also acknowledged 18 vacant civilian positions, some of which are needed for various assignments and others left open “in an effort to reclassify obsolete positions to better meet our needs.” These reclassifications require county executive approval, and Stewart said Macias does not currently approve of them.
As indicated previously in the Sun-NewsStewart and Macias engaged in ongoing litigation on hiring and promotions at DASO.
Responding further on Tuesday, Stewart called claims that DASO failed to use $2.3 million of its budgeted dollars “dishonest” and said $2 million came from salaries for unfilled positions as well as savings on operational costs.
“It’s complicated and something people talk about without fully understanding how it works are at a disadvantage,” she wrote.