Op-Ed By SOPHIA MARTINEZ
Editor’s Note: Passage of the Mora County ordinance banning oil and gas development has generated intense controversy within the county. The first article La Jicarita wrote about the ban, on May 7, received 21 comments from those who support it and those who feel its passage was premature and driven by outside interests. La Jicarita welcomes readers’ input, either as comments to a posted article or op-ed contributions.
Mora County: So far from Heaven, so close to Santa Fe and Pennsylvania
“A sparsely populated county in northern New Mexico … will become the first to challenge the constitution with a citizens rights ordinance banning oil and gas drilling …” states the press release put out by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania-based law firm. As a woman of color in this country and a Mora County native, I understand the value of challenging the Constitution for protections of human and civil rights and/or applying its principles more fairly; however, not at the expense of our county speaking for itself.
We support a moratorium on oil and gas drilling and fracking so that we, the residents, workers, and landowners with generational, cultural, and linguistic ties to Mora County can educate ourselves on these ordinances to see which one best suits our land. We were denied this right by a coordinated group of outsider activism and insider opportunism. Legally, in the state of New Mexico we are protected under our right to a 33-month moratorium. However, in a “special meeting” before this month’s regular county commission meeting, Commissioner John Olivas and newly elected Commissioner Alfonso Griego moved to adopt a citizens rights ordinance, a cookie-cutter ordinance brought to Mora County by environmental activists from Pennsylvania. It is important to note that commissioner Griego took office in January as the new commissioner of the three member governing board. From the record, we know that 31 people spoke on the ordinance at the public hearing, and at least two-thirds of these people were not from Mora County; they were primarily “parachute organizers” from Santa Fe and San Miguel County. Poor Mora County, so far from Heaven, so close to Santa Fe and Pennsylvania.
Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County (CCWMMC) has spent over 14 years educating and organizing around waste and water issues in our county and the tri-county area. We have been successful in two New Mexico Court of Appeals cases prohibiting the Northeastern New Mexico Regional Landfill’s (NENMRL) efforts to obtain a special waste permit. Most recently, the owner of the NENMRL lost another court case to the State Land Office after refusing to remove approximately 300,000 tires in the so-called “River of Tires” dump NENMRL created on State Trust Land. NENMRL is now preparing to file a variance from regulations for disposing of the tires at the landfill and will once again file an application for a Special Waste Permit. CCWMMC will not stand for it.
CCWMMC will also not stand for Mora County being used, and we are disappointed by what should be a victory for Mora County. I am not talking about the “lost oil and gas revenue” narrative the industry and the Governor fabricate. Governor Martinez has a legacy of fabricating information in order to roll back environmental, educational, and other regulations that protect all of our communities. As far as revenues, renewable energy, especially wind, is showing great economic returns in our state; we need to look to these sources of energy rather than worry about the revenues oil and gas are bringing at the cost of our natural resources and health.
Santa Fe County spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for its “regulatory” ordinance; the oil and gas industry then moved out of Santa Fe County. In addition to the Santa Fe Ordinance, San Miguel and Rio Arriba have also developed ordinances against oil and gas drilling. Then there is the “Citizen’s Rights Ordinance,” brought to New Mexico by the Democracy School out of Pennsylvania.
Thanks to the previous County Commission leadership, we had received numerous presentations on all the ordinances in New Mexico as well as a citizen’s rights ordinance. We had yet to learn more of a New York ordinance that takes a different approach and which recently won a lower court decision. A 33-month moratorium would have allowed the residents, workers, and landowners of Mora County to develop an ordinance best suited for our county. But, we were robbed of that right by the Democracy School based in Pennsylvania, outside liberal environmental interests employing activist drones into our county, and inside political opportunism. CCWMMC has struggled for many years against corporate and governmental environmental racism and injustice and this, too, is that.
The Inner-workings & Environmental Brokering of the Mora County Commission
The politics of the Mora County Commission underwent a major power shift in 2013. Commissioner John Olivas become Chair of the Commission, unseating former Commission Chair, Paula Garcia, with the assured vote of new Commissioner Alfonso Griego, who took office at the end of the year. The Commission is a three member governing board.
Before the first regular meeting of the Commission, a special meeting was held where Commissioner Olivas became chair with the vote of new incoming commissioner, Alfonso Griego. They illegally fired County Manger Tomás Sanchez, who was the 11th county manager in approximately that many years. In the first regular meeting in January, on the advice of the county lawyer, County Manager Sanchez was re-instated so that he could later be legally fired. At the next meeting in February, the lawyer was fired! In March the new voting block on the commission then legally fired Sanchez, a local, capable, and professional young man. We were also presented with a new pro-bono lawyer. At the April meeting Commissioner Olivas attempted to take over the budgets of the Volunteer Fire Department (this may be the only vote in which Commissioner Griego did not support him – many volunteer fire fighters from his district were there that evening).
Commissioner Olivas has created numerous sub-committees chaired by his mother and friends to monitor his special interests, and at the special meeting when the citizen’s rights ordinance was passed, he hired the 12th (acting) county manager. This gentleman recently had his license pulled by the state Public Education Department and is presently accused of financial mismanagement in the Mora Independent Schools. He has been hired by the new Commission leadership at a rate of $350.00 a day, an outrageous amount when you consider other employee salaries and county demographics.
At May’s regular meeting, the meeting after the vote on the citizen’s rights ordinance, the outsider environmental activists were absent and folks from different regions of Mora County expressed their opinion on the ban, mostly opposed to oil and gas and not happy that “outside” interests drove the ban. Tensions flared at the harassment and photo-taking tactics of Drilling Mora County, and Chair Olivas denied Commissioner Garcia answers to her questions about the legal retainer for the CELDEF; it appears the group may not have lawyers licensed to practice law in New Mexico. Wow! Suspicious activists disguised as environmental saviors and protectors.
CCWMMC will continue to take stands to protect our water against oil and gas drilling, fracking, landfills, fossil-fuel extraction and development, and the nuclear cycle that begins and ends here in New Mexico. Our communities are being attacked on all levels—social, economic, political, and environmental. However, we can, and will continue, to speak for ourselves!
Sofia Martinez is a native of Mora and San Miguel counties. Her family has been living, farming and ranching in the region since the 1700s. She is a long-time public educator and environmental justice organizer and advocate.