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Editor's Note: In order to be comprehensive, this series will consist of at least three, if not four articles. This first article addresses the opening statements of and answers by District 3 Grant County commissioner candidates. (Photos are Courtesy of Tom Vaughan)

By Mary Alice Murphy

The six Grant County Commissioner candidates plus one who filed as a write-in gave opening statements at a candidate forum on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, hosted by MEChA, the Western New Mexico University Library and the Grant County Democratic Party, as one of its monthly forums.

WNMU Vice President for external affairs Magdaleno Manzanares welcomed the large crowd of around 130 people to the monthly forum. He also thanked Miller Library personnel for setting up the tables and chairs. He introduced the moderator, Abe Villarreal, WNMU marketing director.

Villarreal said the forum featured the Grant County Commission candidates for Districts 3, 4, and 5. For District 3, the candidates are Alicia Edwards and Henry Torres; for District 4, Billy Billings and Marilyn Alcorn; and for District 5, write-in candidate De Ann Bencomo, Harry Browne and Harry Pecotte.

 

Villarreal read a short bio on each, and then asked them to give opening statements for up to five minutes.

He asked the candidates for District 3 to speak first.

"It is an honor and privilege to be here tonight," Edwards, who is the Healthy Kids, Healthy Community coordinator and past director of The Volunteer Center, said. "I thank my donors, the citizens and the voters for giving me this opportunity."

She said from the time she worked in her mother's store to the business she had helped build to a multi-million dollar business, and everything in between, "I think I am well-qualified to serve as county commissioner. " She noted that progressive is not a political party. "I am not anti-ranching, anti-mining, anti-guns or anti-anything else. It's about values. I believe in opportunity, responsibility, cooperation and freedom. As a progressive, I believe everyone should have a shot at a decent well-paying job. Everyone should play by the same rules."

Edwards said she has spent most of her adult life in public service. "If it needs to be done, I roll up my sleeves and invite others to roll up their sleeves and help me get it done."

As the director of The Volunteer Center, she said in 2006, she discovered poverty was the underlying need for so much volunteer service. "In 2008, we held public sessions on how to address poverty. Eight years later, there is a large body of work being done."

Now there are programs addressing food security and food distribution to those who need it, she said.

TVC provided 10 million meals during the past eight years, over half to seniors, children and the remainder to working families and people with health issues. The first five years, the organization was run only by volunteers. Now a part-time "saint" oversees these programs. "The work could not be done without the incredible dedication of volunteers."

She said nearly half of seniors would need supplemental food for the rest of their lives. "On average, five children in each class at school come to school hungry." All are interconnected, she said, caused by lack of healthy nutritious food, lack of education, lack of jobs, lack of hope."

Hope is the vision of the Commons, which was built under her watch, by bringing people together, she said. "The community built everything, with the majority being youths. Yes, we have a comprehensive plan for prosperity for everyone, every senior, every family, not just a job. Yes, there are barriers, but we are doing everything we can to get over, under or around them." She said the community has a choice to make. "Throw away labels and work together. I choose to become the community of YES."

Henry Torres said: "It's great to see this type of turnout." He is a native of Grant County and returned in 1975. He said he has the experience for the job, with a business background in an alternative energy company and in real estate, from which he retired. He served two consecutive terms on the Grant County Commission from 2001-2008. During his tenure, the county faced and solved serious financial issues. "When I left we had the required five-twelfths reserve plus cash on hand. The county must keep enough resources for county departments to do their job, thereby ensuring the health, safety and welfare of our Grant County citizens. When I am commissioner, I will work to improve the working relationship with the town of Silver City, small businesses and with state and federal agencies. Continue to maintain buildings, roads and county infrastructure without additional expansion or additional expenses. We must continue to respect and enhance our cultural and diverse heritage."

He said he would act to comply with the provisions of the Arizona Water Settlements Act.

"It is my conviction that government was created to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves," Torres concluded his opening statement.

The first question Villarreal posed to the two candidates asked how each candidate would address the challenge of providing needed services in a time of limited resources.

Edwards said the most crucial is to diversify economic development. "In face of cutting, cutting, cutting, we need to deal with alternate resources. There's a huge opportunity for outdoor recreation. We need to look at how to take advantage of our natural resources to grow and create small businesses around that opportunity to provide more tax base and more revenue."

Torres said he would propose assistance to improve small businesses to include farming, ranching, mining, and in downtown Silver City and in the Mining District, and ask the county to take an active part in soliciting outside resources that are fitting and complementary to the limited natural resources such as land and water. "Keep clean air in consideration, and do all we can without having to go to state or federal government for assistance." He explained that PILT is payment-in-lieu-of-taxes the federal government pays for the federal lands that are not subject to property taxes. "I want to emphasize that government cannot do everything."

Edwards asked to clarify that what she said was she wanted to diversify away from PILT.

Villarreal asked how the county commission could attract people and families to come to the community.

"The first thing, as a leader in county government, along with municipal governments, we need to help existing businesses to grow, compete and expand their customer base, marketing and production," Torres said. "If a small business creates one job that's one young person that didn't have to go somewhere else to get a job. Secondary, we would want to encourage the state and federal government to improve transportation into the community. We should encourage federal agencies to create jobs to keep youths in the community."

Edwards concurred that improving conditions for existing businesses is a start. She said conditions should encourage the creation of new businesses to increase quality of life to bring people into the community. The No. 1 issue facing young families is the cost of childcare.

Another thing that affects whether people come and whether they stay is education. She said the hospital has a challenge in recruiting, because new doctors and other medical professionals "are not wild about our school system. There is a wide variety of issues that we need to talk about. I believe our county can take a leadership role in a vision for what our county will look like in the future, specifically to keep our people here, encourage our young people not to leave, and to encourage young people to come here."

Jason Dobrinsky, an audience member, asked Edwards a question. " I've heard you say New Mexico is a net exporter of agriculture. What is your vision to address that?"

Edwards explained that New Mexico exports 95 percent of what it produces and imports 95 percent of what "we consume. That is mind-boggling to me. I understand there are many reasons why that happens. But it seems to me that if we are raising cattle in Grant County, there should be a way to keep some of those cattle in Grant County. I understand the nearest USDA certified place to process meat is in Tucson, and some go to Arrey, but we need to figure out how to keep some of our food in our community."

She said ranches are small businesses as much as anyone else and she includes them in the need to encourage their continuing to thrive. "We need to keep what we produce in this state."

Torres said economics on a local and state level dictate how they are marketed in Grant County and outside of Grant County. "I would like to see and we are seeing some grass-fed beef come to local market, with the problem that how often is there enough grass to get one fat enough to eat," to chuckles from the audience. "Seriously. My answer is if there is a better way to market Grant County beef, I would like them to give me a job. The way it is done has evolved over many years, and it may come back to the way you, Miss Edwards, would like to see it done. Our agricultural producers sell their hay locally, sell their vegetables locally, but it doesn't make them a living, but supplements their jobs or other businesses and I see growth in that."

Ty Bays of the Grant County Cattle Growers asked the next question to both candidates. "In Grant County and in New Mexico, we have lost a lot of head of cattle, mostly on the forest. A multi-million dollar radical, environmental agency, the Center for Biological Diversity, has sued and settled with the Forest Service so many times we have lost thousands of AUM's on forest service land, all under the guise of protection of the southwestern willow flycatcher. It almost does not exist on Forest Service land, yet it thrives on the Gila Valley, which has the largest concentration of livestock in the southwest." He said the group has shut down the logging industry, with another excuse for taking cattle off the forest being the spotted owl, which thrives on the tribal and private lands that have been harvested numerous times. "Will you, as a commissioner, fight these environmental groups and fight for our agricultural industry in Grant County?"

"First off," Torres said, "to suggest the Forest Service is anti-ranching, anti-logging, anti-mining is not true. The Forest Service has been forced into a corner by environmental groups consistently suing them over endangered species, free-flowing water, Clean Air Act, so I think the first thing I would encourage commissioners to do is work with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, try to work with federal agencies to protect them and the public lands they serve and try to educate the public on the value of multiple use of our public lands."

"This feels like a trick question," Edwards said. "As long as Americans consume 50 billion hamburgers a year, we have to find some way to compromise or, as Mr. Torres said, find ways to have multiple uses. We can't demand to have some things and make it impossible to have them on the other. I think as a commissioner it would be to listen to both sides of an issue, both sides of this issue and to reach the most balanced decision I could come up with, not by myself. We have to be balanced on these issues."

Lorna Rubelmann from the audience asked Torres about why he put mining into small business. "Do you have an upper limit or a geographic limit to what you would call small?"

Torres, as a member of the Grant County Commission, "I would encourage my fellow commissioners to do what was within the scope and authority within the commission, to encourage help to small businesses that sell a product or a service, whether they employ one or many. Mining is not a small business. Small businesses are the tile entity downtown and small farmers and ranchers. If they can employ one more that is one more taxpayer. As for industrial, I don't think we can attract that kind of entity to Grant County."

Kyle Johnson, resident of Gila, New Mexico, said to Torres: "During your tenure as county commission, there were a lot of financial problems the community had been screaming about even before you became county commissioner, (such as) the problem with the Grant County Administration building, essentially having the books taken over by the state, so while you were not the member that made those situations, nonetheless, during that period there were massive layoffs and cuts in services, and a long time being corrected. During that time, you were identified as a Democrat. Now we are in one of the most contentious election cycles in memory, where we have Donald Trump at the head of the Republican ticket. At what point did you abandon the principles, the values, the community, the interests and the concerns that we assume you had as a Democrat to become a Republican? It has the appearance of being a very cynical approach to attaining office, where you bypassed the primary challenge and could enter the November election as a Republican. When did you decide to do that?

"We, as Americans, have the privilege to choose whatever political affiliation we want," Torres countered to applause. "I've always been a conservative, much more than the run-of-the-mill Democrat. During my tenure as commissioner I was accused many times of being a Republican in sheep's clothing. There are people in this room that accused me of that. So my attitude, my philosophy has not changed. I think the Democrat party has changed quite a lot."

The next article will cover what was said during the District 4 portion of the forum. It will be followed by District 5, and likely a final article on the questions asked to all candidates.

Live from Silver City

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