COMMENTARY: In January 2017 our new Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners had an agenda item to rescind the county’s “safe and sane” fireworks ordinance, which has been in effect for a decade.
There was no groundswell of public opinion to modify this ordinance, but there were monies from a fireworks vendor given to various commissioners and their campaigns. Due to strong public pressure, this agenda item was never debated and was removed from the agenda.
However, on April 11, the county commission voted 4-1 to pass an amendment that would allow “specialty retailers” throughout our county to sell ground audible and aerial fireworks (which were previously prohibited by the county’s ordinance) year-round. It was pledged that these fireworks would be sold only to non-county residents and not used in the county. This pledge was met with considerable skepticism by some who spoke at the commission meeting and by many others who contacted the commissioners prior to the meeting via email and telephone.
Commissioners John Vasquez and Isabella Solis admitted they each received campaign contributions of $2,500 from Bowlin Travel Centers, the specialty vendor that would benefit from the modified fireworks law. Commissioner Ben Rawson stated that he received $100 or $200 from a fireworks vendor for his campaign. The commissioners said they, in spite of receiving these campaign contributions, could be objective in their vote. They refused to recuse themselves in spite of being asked to do so during the meeting.
Commissioner Vasquez then admitted that the $2,500 he received from the fireworks vendor was received after his election to the county commission. He was the commissioner who pushed for the January agenda item designed to repeal the entire “safe and sane” county fireworks ordinance.
Commissioner Billy Garrett then gave a compelling recitation to the commissioners and the public regarding the need for elected officials to exercise strong ethics to ensure public trust and to avoid conflicts of interest — all to no avail.
Besides the folly of adding more year-round aerial fireworks, many which will be illegally discharged in the county, the commission is now being perceived as indebted to special interests. This has undermined public trust in the county commission.
Does our commission want to be known for “pay for play” to the highest bidder? As I said during the commission meeting, just prior to the vote, “The public deserves better.”
An important question remains: Will the public now demand better from our commissioners?
William Corbett is a Doña Ana County resident who has taught at New Mexico State University since 2001. He previously served on the committee that developed the first “safe and sane” fireworks ordinance enacted by the City of Las Cruces and then by Doña Ana County.