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FNS Feature: The Surprise that Keeps SurprisingKent Patterson for Salem-News.com
"Without economic development here, we cannot help our people.." - Javier Perea, elected Mayor of Sunland Park.
(LAS CRUCES, NM) - Editor’s Note: Frontera NorteSur’s special coverage of the southern New Mexico borderland is made possible in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation. Today’s story is about the latest developments in the troubled New Mexico border town of Sunland Park.
In a stunning political development, the often-fractious Sunland Park City Council took action April 18 by a vote of 3-2, with one abstention, to install 24-year-old New Mexico State University (NMSU) graduate Javier Perea as mayor. Appearing before a packed house at the Sunland Park Senior Citizens Center, the finely-dressed and carefully-groomed young man vowed to pursue an open, responsible government dedicated to economic development for an impoverished U.S.-Mexico border town submerged in political scandals, state and federal criminal investigations and state financial probes of the municipal government.
“I’m not here to create hostility. I’m not here to create division,” Perea pledged. "Without economic development here, we cannot help our people.." The selection of Perea for the embattled town's top job came as a surprise, since he was not among three competing candidates in the disputed March 6 election. The official winner of the mayoral election, 28-year-old Daniel Salinas, remains in the Dona Ana County Detention Center facing multiple felony counts related to extortion and bribery charges.
In comments to the city council and to reporters afterward, Perea said he had considered running for an office in the last election but that employment issues prevented him from launching a campaign. The son of a woman with a work history in the Sunland Park Police Department, Perea told FNS he claimed no political party affiliation and was an “independent.”
Politically inexperienced, Perea has not been publicly linked to either of the two major factions that contested the March 6 election. His approval by the city council to lead a community in crisis could be viewed as an attempt to rise above the polarization that's dominated local politics and move ahead on a number of pressing economic, environmental and social fronts.
Perea holds a degree in business administration, and most recently has worked as a salesman for a diamond company. He said he was considering pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at NMSU or at neighboring UTEP in El Paso.
Asked by FNS how he would react to a possible state take-over of Sunland Park’s municipal finances, Perea responded that he would have no problem with intervention from Santa Fe. “If they come to take over, let it happen,” Perea said. “Why would I fight that?”
Perea was voted mayor after a motion to name to the post Gerardo Hernandez, the number two vote-getter in the March 6 contest, was rejected 4-2 by the city council. The Perea vote came amid another emotionally-charged meeting attended by a 150-person capacity crowd as well as others who did not arrive early and were forced to wait outside the building. Sunland Park police and members of the New Mexico State Police guarded the meeting, directing the borderland television and print media outlets that turned out in force to a taped-off area inside the center.
A beefy local cop stood before the lively crowd to review the "house rules" before the meeting formally began. "Respect the person in front of you and behind you," he instructed. Speaking in both Spanish and English, a parade of residents took to the microphone to demand clean government and long overdue changes. Allegations of nepotism and incompetence in local government were frequently voiced complaints.
Partisans of both Daniel Salinas and Gerardo Hernandez were similarly quite visible and vocal during the public comment portion of the meeting. A group of women held up handmade messages that expressed support for Daniel Salinas on one side and Mayor Pro-Tem Isabel Santos on the other side of the same cardboard signs. Some speakers lashed out against Santos, questioning her for formerly supporting Hernandez but then abandoning ship, or for supposedly wanting to become mayor herself. Listening intently, Santos denied she wanted the mayor's position.
In an unusual appearance, Salinas lawyer Joshua Spencer strode up to the microphone and addressed the boisterous crowd. Spencer said he had attempted to prevent the political polarization evident at the meeting by making sure the people's choice was respected and Salinas sworn in as mayor. In a last-ditch appeal, Spencer failed to convince the New Mexico Supreme Court that it should override a lower court's restrictions on Salinas which prevented the former city councilor from taking office. Among the legal accusations against Salinas was that he unsuccessfully plotted to force Gerardo Hernandez into dropping out of the race through the threatened release of a secretly-filmed video which showed Hernandez getting a lap dance from a still-unidentified, topless woman. Spencer asserted that Salinas was the victim of "the governor and state powers" that were after Sunland Park's water by means of the new Camino Real Regional Utility Authority. "The people have spoken and voted for Salinas," the New Mexico attorney declared.
But Gerardo Hernandez later insisted that Salinas' election was fraudulent, and that his opponent counted on 174 illegal votes which were cast by people residing in El Paso just across the state line. Hernandez has a legal challenge to the election pending in the state's Third Judicial District, but has not yet had a hearing on the matter, he told FNS. Since Hernandez officially lost by a small margin of several dozen votes, he could ultimately become mayor if his legal case prospers.
Hernandez added that a state take-over of municipal finances could be positive for his city. "There is a lot of attention," the former candidate said of the outside scrutiny on Sunland Park, "because we are cleaning house and when you clean house you are going to find a lot of dirt."
This week's special city council meeting did not consider a scheduled update on a matter that is likely at the heart of all the recent fuss in Sunland Park: a new border crossing with Mexico. Salinas and others stand accused of illegally spending a portion of a $12 million fund donated to Sunland Park by Stan Fulton, owner of the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino. City Councilors Sergio Reyes Carrillo and Carmen Rodriguez told FNS that they did not know the status of the remaining balance of the fund, and would have to wait for information from the city department responsible for administering the money.
Meantime, Javier Perea awaits swearing-in as Sunland Park's new mayor. Reportedly, two other mayoral hopefuls who showed up at the meeting to request the position were not allowed inside because of their late arrivals. The city government and mass media widely announced the meeting for 6 p.m., but police officers prevented people who did not work for the news media from entering the building after 5:30 p.m., because all the seats were already taken by residents eager to voice their opinions. Prior to the meeting, several people waiting outside complained to FNS about not being permitted to enter an important public gathering that was set to begin 30 minutes later.
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