[Editor's Note: This is part of a multi-part series on the work session and regular meetings of Feb. 19 and 21, 2019. It addresses the decisions made by commissioners on four resolutions, addressing the mine and firearms legislation being considered at the New Mexico 2019 Legislative Session.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

Proud Americans stood, hands on hearts, and proclaimed: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…" About 1,000 of them stood in the large conference room and in the halls of the Grant County Veterans Memorial Business and Conference Center. The sound filled the room and grew, phrase by phrase in unison, with a crescendo to "with liberty and justice for all."

Thus began the Grant County Commission regular session on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

About four hours of public input showed a majority of those present supported the mines and their Second Amendment rights to possess and bear arms.

[Editor's note: The details of public input and invited presentations on the four resolutions will be reported in future articles. This article will address the actions of the Grant County commissioners.

On resolution R-19-20, "a resolution opposing legislation that would prohibit certain corporate guarantees that assure the performance requirements of a mining permit," Commissioner Billy Billings made the motion to approve the resolution and Commissioner Javier Salas seconded it.

"The reason I'm opposed to this legislation is because I'm concerned about Grant County and the continuation of Freeport (McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc.) being able to continue doing reclamation," Salas said. "The company is already doing what is required. If it's not broken, why do we need to change it? Some other corporations may not be as good stewards as Freeport, but we're talking about Grant County and Freeport here."

Billings said the county has clean water and good jobs. "If it's not 'broke,' don't break it."

"We elected officials should do what is right, even if it may not be what the people want," Commissioner Harry Browne said. "Democracy works. You are welcome to vote me out of office. When I campaigned, my preferences were well known."

Commission Chairman Chris Ponce gaveled the crowd to order during an outburst of boos from the audience. "Have respect for all viewpoints. It’s their First Amendment right."

Browne continued his comments on House Bill 255, which would change the guarantees and the guarantor of those financial guarantees.

"HB 255 is preparedness for the future," Browne said. "When the mines close, hopefully decades from now, we need to make sure that the reclamation work gets done. I view it as my responsibility to make sure the proper closure of the mines is fully funded. One million dollars or so of payments by the company to assure proper remediation is not going to stop mining."

Ponce said he ran on a platform for protecting the county's heritage and culture. "When this issue came up, I didn't immediately think of Freeport. I pictured devastation of the economy. I listened to Santa Fe when they talked about better health care, but then I started to see something like this that will devastate the county, not make it better, because it's not broken. I sought legal counsel because I am an employee of Freeport, so I will abstain from voting."

Billings asked Browne if he was a founder of Gila Resources Information Project, which has continually fought the mines on various issues, including water quality and reclamation, and asked if that was not a conflict of interest.

"I do not work for and am not paid by GRIP," Browne replied. "I serve on the volunteer board. The law allows a person to serve on a volunteer board and be a government official at the same time. I am not benefitting directly or indirectly from this vote. I do work for the Aldo Leopold Charter School, which if mining goes away, would lose state funding. I don't think HB255 will adversely affect Freeport."

Ponce called for the vote. Billings and Salas voted for the resolution to oppose HB255. Ponce abstained. Commissioners Alicia Edwards and Browne voted against the resolution. The 2-2 tie caused the motion to fail.

To voiced disagreement with the result from the audience, Billings spoke up. "I agree with Commissioner Ponce's decision. He got legal advice and if he had not recused himself, it could have been a fourth-degree felony for conflict of interest."

"This is a statement from Grant County," Billings said. "But I think the statement is from the as many as 1,000 people who turned out today to fight this legislation. I hope there is enough common sense among the senators that this will die in the Senate."

The next resolution, No. R-19-21, opposed legislation amending the Water Quality Act to provide where the effect of a discharge on ground or surface water is to be determined.

Billings moved to approve, and Salas seconded it.

"For some of us these are really hard issues," Salas said. "You elected me to represent you. I live in Bayard next to Copper Creek. As a child I ruined many a pair of shoes in that creek. But I see the efforts Freeport is doing to improve the creek. Our drinking water is no problem. No matter how this vote comes out, I will go the Santa Fe and speak to as many senators as possible to oppose this legislation. I will let all senators know my opinion."

Billings thanked the Freeport employees in the audience. "You are here because you see the impact it could have on you, your jobs and the county. I hope you will take my advice to contact your senators and all the senators to ask them to oppose this. I know this legislation will come back next year and the year after. You must go to the ballot box to save our heritage."

"I emphasize that my children grew up here and live and work here," Browne said. "I want the county to succeed. I have concerns because on one side, I don't think the mines will close because of this. I believe the mine is whipping up fear. I do worry about clean water. Some wells have been contaminated. It can happen. There have been wells contaminated near Tyrone Mine. I also believe that actions speak louder than words. Was the mine reclaiming the property before the law? No. When Freeport bought the property from the previous owner, they bought the problems, too. Some facts may have different interpretations. It may be that the mine keeps contamination out only because there are clean water laws."

Edwards thanked everyone for "hanging in all day. It's been a pretty brutal long day. I appreciate the fact that you're still here. I am a diehard environmentalist and I really like clean water. I have agonized for days. We are all in this community together. It would be really scary if the mines closed. The first thing I did when I came here was to organize food drives in 2007-2008 because of the mine closures and layoffs. So, I understand where you are coming from."

Ponce urged everyone to contact their representatives and senators. "Freeport is still providing water to Hurley, but the final phases of Phase 1 should soon get water to Hurley. I will again abstain."

"I'm nervous," Edwards said. "It's really important when you are talking about what could happen. It strikes me today that I think a lot of people who voted for me aren't here for me today."

Salas commented that any variances that Freeport might request "will be at the whim of whatever the political will is when they request it. I ran on a platform to support the mines. If the water were polluted, I would be opposed to this resolution, but Freeport is being a good steward."

Billings directed his comment at Edwards. "You said you are nervous. I would plead with you to vote with us."

Salas—aye; Billings—aye; Edwards—aye.

At the moment Edwards said: "Aye," the room exploded in applause and a standing ovation.

Browne—nay.

Edwards said she really thought about it a lot and consulted with the attorney and thought about abstaining. "I want to acknowledge that it takes a lot of courage to sit up here. Harry Browne shows his courage to stick up for what he believes in."

The next two resolutions were brought to the commission by Sheriff Frank Gomez.

No. R-19-23 was in support of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and declaring Grant County to be a Second Amendment Sanctuary County.

Billings moved to approve, and Salas seconded it.

Browne asked if he could make some procedural corrections. The fourth whereas said inalienable and individual rights. "The U.S. Constitution does not say inalienable, but only individual."

He asked for insertions in two of the whereases that addressed Supreme Court cases and then in the ninth paragraph to strike inalienable again for the same reason.

Billings amended his motion to include the first and fourth requests, but not the second and third. "I would rather accept what the Sheriff sent us on the other two." Salas confirmed his second to the amendment.

On discussion on the amended motion, Browne said he accepted the amendments. "The best part of the resolution is to support the U.S. Constitution. We did not take an oath to support part of the Constitution. I carry my copy with me quite often." He held it up. "I think the decision on constitutionality is up to the courts now. We should show loyalty to the Constitution. I urge my fellow commissioner to reject this resolution."

Edwards said every elected official took the oath to uphold the Constitution. "These four bills are making their way through the legislative process. Background checks have already proven to be constitutional." She cited the necessity for a court order to remove firearms from a person or home and the exemptions for the exchange of firearms. I believe the legislation strikes a balance for safety. My concern is about the unfunded mandates to enforce these laws. I will request the legislators to fully fund these laws."

Salas noted that the discussion on Second Amendment Sanctuary County is not passing a law. "We are sharing our opinions and principles. I have exchanged weapons, lent them and gifted them. I think the legislation is supposed to prevent violence, but I believe it is simply trampling on law-abiding citizens. We need to do something. I know the sheriff will enforce the law. We are just showing our opposition to the legislation."

"I've seen the good things Sheriff Gomez is doing," Billings said. "He has said there is a drug problem in Grant County, and he will address it. We don't want to divert resources to new laws. I'm excited about the sheriff's plan to address the drug problems. I hope the laws will be enforced so our communities are safer."

Salas—Aye; Billings—Aye; Ponce—Aye; Edwards—Nay; Browne—Nay. Motion passed. Grant County is now a Second Amendment Sanctuary County.

No. R-19-24 is a resolution opposing legislation that would impose rules, regulations and restrictions exceeding federal law on all private firearm transfers between individuals.

Salas made the motion to approve, and Billings seconded it.

Salas—Aye; Billings—Aye; Ponce—Aye; Edwards—Nay; Browne—Nay.

Grant County opposes the bills exceeding federal law on firearms.

The rest of the Grant County Commission work session and regular session will be addressed in multiple future articles. [Editor's Note: As time permits]

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