By Rob Nikolewski | New Mexico Watchdog
Even for a state with a history of bare-knuckle political fights, it doesn’t get much more bad-to-the-bone than the current battle between the mayor of Las Vegas, N.M., and a group assembled to throw him out of office.
“This whole thing has all the dirt of Chicago politics squeezed into a small town,” said Lee Einer, a long-time critic of the mayor and co-founder of the Committee For Honest Government, which hopes to oust Ortiz, who has three years left in his second term in office.
What’s spurring the recall effort? It depends on whom you ask. Ortiz claims it centers on his support of fracking, but his detractors say it’s a host of issues that make the mayor unfit for the office.
In addition to the recall effort, there have been charges from both sides of attempts at political intimidation as the recall petition-signing drive gained momentum in the town of 15,000 in northern New Mexico.
Ortiz supporters claim one of the co-founders of the recall committee harassed the city clerk — something Einer called “dirty tricks” — while supporters of the recall accuse opponents of vandalizing signs that call for the mayor’s ouster.
Last year, the city council approved a ban on fracking, but Ortiz has refused to enforce it.
“The people behind this recall effort are people who are against fracking and they’re going after me because I didn’t sign the ordinance, which is as unconstitutional as you get,” Ortiz said. “That’s the major impetus.”
“No, not at all,” said Einer, a big supporter of the anti-fracking measure. “It’s one of the issues, but it’s not all of it. It’s multiple issues…the short answer is there has been a continuing pattern of misconduct.”
The ordinance passed in April 2012. It’s largely symbolic since few people think oil and natural gas producers are going to start erecting drills within the city limits.
Ortiz said he actually supports the measure in theory.
“But the real issue is not fracking,” Ortiz said, “it’s that the community rights ordinance is unconstitutional…it will supersede our charter. It’s anti-government. It would violate my oath of office if I signed it.”
An environmental group from Pennsylvania helped draft the ordinance, and one of its representatives raised eyebrows when she told a reporter last year, “What people don’t understand is sometimes we have to step outside the boundaries of the Constitution to get things done. Laws are made to protect corporations and we need laws that protect Mother Earth — earth, air and water.”
Einer and Ortiz have tangled before. The 73-year-old Ortiz has lived in the Las Vegas area his entire life and has held a number of government and education positions, including a job at New Mexico Highlands University.
Einer, an accounts receivable specialist who said he’s currently unemployed, has been an active voice from the political left in Las Vegas. He describes an appearance in the movie Sicko by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore as, “‘I guess what you would call my claim to fame.”
Einer alleges that Ortiz has concentrated political power through his office.
Ortiz, who until December served as the San Miguel County Treasurer, says there’s “nothing to it.”
“We’re dealing with people who, when you provide a legal argument, they just tear it apart,” he said.
Water rates have risen recently in Las Vegas. Ortiz said the increases are economically necessary.
“People in the poor part of town are our biggest supporters,” Einer said.
“One of these days we’re going to realize that water is precious,” Ortiz said of the 27 percent increases in each of the last two years. “We’re not even at seven-tenths of a penny (per gallon). In time, we’re going to see water is going to be a lot more expensive.”
For now, the big question in Las Vegas is whether enough valid signatures have been turned in to force a recall election.
At least 937 signatures need to be approved, and Einer’s group said it collected more than 1,500 John Hancocks from city residents.
“Getting names is one thing and getting certifiable voters is another,” Ortiz said.
City Clerk Casandra Fresquez is poring over the petition’s signatures this week. If enough of them are deemed valid, the recall election will commence.
“In my book, if you’re trying to disempower people, if you’re trying to curb their rights, that tends to make you a bad guy,” Einer said.
“I’m fighting because I know we have good projects going on in this city,” Ortiz said, adding, “I’m here to help the community of Las Vegas.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and reach him on Twitter at @nmwatchdog