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TUES: Voters cast 13,000 absentee and early ballots, archdiocese case frustrates victims + more

Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
In this Oct. 8, 2018, file photo, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller speaks during a news conference at ABQ Studios in Albuquerque, N.M.

Voting options expand in Albuquerque, Santa Fe electionsAssociated Press

Nearly 13,000 absentee and early ballots have been cast in local elections that will determine the next mayors of New Mexico's largest city as well as its state capital, with two weeks remaining before Election Day.

The secretary of state's office on Tuesday released its first tally of voter participation in the consolidated Nov. 2 election for local government offices including school boards and bond initiatives that influence local tax rates. More than 25,000 absentee ballots have been requested.

Progressive Democratic Mayors Tim Keller in Albuquerque and Alan Webber in Santa Fe are running for reelection in three-way races.

In Albuquerque, Keller is vying against Democratic Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales and conservative talk radio show host Eddy Aragon. Concerns about crime and homelessness have been prominent in the contest.

In Santa Fe, Webber is seeking a second term against Democratic Santa Fe City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler and engineer Alexis Martinez Johnson, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year.

Though local elections are nonpartisan, registered Democrats are dominating early participation among voters, casting about 60% of ballots statewide, 63% in the Albuquerque area and 85% in Santa Fe County.

State Republican Party leaders are encouraging voters to support politically conservative school board candidates and challenge the influence of teachers unions.

Statewide voter turnout in the consolidated 2019 local election was 224,000, or 18.11% of registered voters, with just one major mayoral race on the ballot in Las Cruces.

Balloting options expanded Saturday to include a variety of early voting centers that typically open near midday and accept voters into the evening, with some variation by county.

Early in-person voting extends through Oct. 30. Election Day voting takes place Nov. 2.

Voting began on Oct. 5 at county clerks' office and with the distribution of absentee ballots that can be dropped off or sent by mail.

Same-day voter registration is available during the early voting period but not on Election Day. As of Monday, 224 people have utilized same-day voter registration.

New Mexico finishes tests of wells for Air Force chemicalsAssociated Press

New Mexico environmental protection officials have wrapped up testing of nearly five dozen private wells near a U.S. Air Force base on the eastern side of the state for so-called "forever chemicals" known as PFAS, which can be toxic to humans and animals.

The state Environment Department said Monday that neither of two PFAS contaminants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established health advisories for were detected in the samples collected during the study. However, other types of PFAS compounds were found at very low levels in nine wells.

Contamination with PFAS chemicals has been documented at and around Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis as well as at Holloman air base near Alamogordo and other locations in New Mexico. The state sued the U.S. Air Force in 2019, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities.

Efforts are underway to determine the extent of the contamination.

State lawmakers in 2020 approved $100,000 for the well testing program in two eastern counties near the Cannon base. The state Environment Department partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey on the sampling and well owners were notified of the results.

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney said in a statement Monday that PFAS are a threat to human health and the environment and that gathering scientific evidence will be key.

"This effort equips regulators, residents and businesses with critical information about the safety of our water supply and adds to our growing body of knowledge about the presence of these harmful chemicals in eastern New Mexico," Kenney said.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used in nonstick frying pans, water-repellent sports gear, stain-resistant rugs and countless other consumer products. The compounds have been associated with serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight.

While legal wrangling with the Air Force continues, state officials also have pushed for federal officials to designate PFAS as hazardous substances.

On Monday, the federal government announced a plan intended to restrict PFAS from being released into the environment, accelerate cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites such as military bases and increase investments in research to learn more about where PFAS are found and how their spread can be prevented.

Amazon eyes Albuquerque airport for new cargo facilityAssociated Press

Amazon is eying the airport of New Mexico's most populous city as the site for construction of a new cargo facility.

City Council members on Monday formally proposed a lease agreement for Seattle-based Amazon to build a 30,750-square-foot cargo facility at the Albuquerque International Sunport.

"This is very exciting for economic development in Albuquerque," said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.

Amazon spokeswoman Eileen Hards declined comment beyond a prepared statement saying that the company hasn't signed a lease for the site yet, but is "actively exploring options locally."

Existing cargo operations at the airport are at capacity, officials said.

Keller said the city is working to develop an intermodal transportation hub at the Sunport to make it a single transfer point for planes, trains, and trucks.

"We know we've got land at the Sunport, and we have high demand for cargo," Keller said.

Albuquerque recently secured a $6.5 million federal grant to expand the airport's cargo apron.

Amazon already has a distribution center in Albuquerque and is currently building a sorting facility at the same location.

New Mexico clears way for hospitals to ration care if needed – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico on Monday cleared the way for hospitals to ration care if necessary, saying the state's health care system has yet to see a reprieve as the nursing shortage continues and as many patients with non-COVID-19 illnesses and those who have delayed care over the last year are now filling hospital beds.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said hospitals already have been juggling patients with fewer resources since the pandemic began, and the order he signed sets up an “equitable procedure” for making tough decisions.

Hospitals can suspend procedures that aren’t medically necessary if they don’t have capacity, he said, explaining that some patients could see delays in care depending on which hospitals have to invoke crisis standards of care and for how long. Individual providers will be deciding what procedures are necessary.

Officials during a briefing shared maps that showed even the state's most populated area had only two available intensive care beds.

“We’re in tough shape in New Mexico," Scrase said, adding that enacting crisis standards doesn't mean people should not seek care.

State officials also pushed for more people to either get vaccinated or get their booster shots, as the rate in New Mexico continues to hover just below 72%. About 5% of adults in the state have received booster shots.

There is a proposal being introduced in Albuquerque that would require the city’s police officers and first responders to be vaccinated or face termination. Those with exemptions would be required to show proof of negative COVID-19 testing every week.

Elected officials in New Mexico's largest city already have acknowledged that the police force and the fire and rescue department have been overburdened even before the start of the pandemic with persistent violent crime, skyrocketing homelessness and other calls. Union members were expected to voice opposition to the measure.

The sponsor of the measure, Democratic City Councilor Isaac Benton, did not answer questions ahead of Monday’s council meeting about the potential effects or how the city could fill any gaps in emergency services that would likely result.

Mayor Tim Keller's office issued a statement Monday, saying the city actively encourages vaccination for all who are eligible and has made getting tested and vaccinated as accessible as possible. The office also noted that a number of state and federal laws need to be considered when passing or implementing such a mandate and that the city's legal department is reviewing it.

The push for mandatory vaccines among public safety workers in Albuquerque comes as police and firefighter unions as well as individual officers and first responders across the U.S. are fighting back by filing lawsuits to block mandates.

In Seattle, the police department was forced to send detectives and non-patrol officers to emergency calls last week because of a shortage of patrol officers that union leaders fear will become worse because of vaccine mandates. In Chicago, union officials said more than 3,000 officers were refusing that city's mandate, with union leaders saying it was illegal because the city failed to negotiate the terms with the union.

There also have been protests by health care workers about mandates within their professions, and dozens of scientists, researchers and other workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory — the birthplace of the atomic bomb — also are suing over the lab's vaccine mandate.

Albuquerque's proposal would add the vaccine requirement to the city's emergency declaration. The proposed amendment states that the pandemic is a unique crisis that continues to spread through New Mexico and that city employees who become sick can't adequately perform their duties, which disrupts the orderly operation of the city government.

Many officers and first responders have questioned the purpose of the mandates, noting that they worked throughout the pandemic under the same conditions and shouldn’t be forced to get shots now.

The mandate for Albuquerque's public safety workers would take effect no later than three weeks after approval. The council could vote as soon as mid-November.

A vaccine mandate was imposed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year for all state workers. Meanwhile, Bernalillo County officials have said they did not plan to require vaccines, pointing to staffing concerns.

Victims express frustration with archdiocese bankruptcy case – Associated Press

It’s been nearly three years since the Archdiocese of Santa Fe filed for bankruptcy, and letters sent to a federal judge reflect impatience with the pace of the proceedings.

At least 16 letters have gone to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David Thuma since the case began, with most being sent by the same few people. Still, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the letters appear to give a voice to victims or the relatives of victims as the case drags on.

One letter sent three months ago reads: “Nothing is happening! Victims are frustrated with the case at a standstill. Please help!!!!”

About 385 victims, most of whom suffered child sexual abuse by priests and other clergy members, are represented by numerous attorneys. Nine of the claimants make up a committee that also speaks for the victims.

The Rev. Glennon Jones, the archdiocese’s vicar general, wrote on the institution’s website at the end of September that the archdiocese is collecting money to pay the victims. The archdiocese also is negotiating with insurance companies, but Jones acknowledged that it “may take a while.”

Ford Elsaesser, an Idaho-based bankruptcy attorney representing the archdiocese, said Thursday that the frustration of the survivors is understandable. While the ongoing work with the insurance companies is confidential, he said it's critical to the case.

Nationwide, numerous dioceses and Catholic orders have filed for bankruptcy in the sex abuse scandal.

In New Mexico, victims’ attorneys accused the archdiocese of shifting assets to parishes and trust funds ahead of the bankruptcy filing to make them inaccessible to victims. That complaint is on hold.

It’s not clear how much money and insurance the archdiocese is trying to collect. Participants in the case have declined to disclose that. Thuma wrote in February that more than $150 million could be involved, and that was only for a portion of the assets victims potentially could receive.

Education funding on ballots in New Mexico cities’ elections – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

Local governments across New Mexico are seeking to renew property taxes to pay for school buildings, computers and air ventilation systems even as school districts are slated to receive $900 million in federal pandemic aid.

Ventilation upgrades are on virtually all lists after state authorities mandated upgraded systems better able to pull tiny virus particles out of the air. They often require new machinery.

School districts received around $900 million in additional federal funding this year aimed at offsetting the costs of reshaping education infrastructure in response to the virus.

Some of the funds were used to replace aging air ventilation systems. Many districts offered a laptop to each student for the first time, paid bonuses to staff working despite the risk of COVID-19, as well as purchased hand sanitizer, signage and face masks.

Balloting is underway at early voting centers, county clerks’ offices and by absentee ballots that can be mailed or dropped off by hand. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Albuquerque is asking voters for $630 million, with classroom technology upgrades accounting for the largest proposed spending category of around $110 million. Another $15 million would pay for air ventilation improvements. That’s after $30 million budgeted from federal pandemic aid, district spokeswoman Monica Armenta said.

Man who fell from New Mexico sports skybox, son get payouts – Associated Press

A man who fell from a luxury suite at a university sports arena in Albuquerque onto concrete stairs below has been awarded $144,000 under a state-negotiated settlement, according to settlement documents obtained Monday.

During a Lobos basketball game in December 2016 at the University of New Mexico, Eduardo Bracamonte Jr. of Peralta fell while making his way to a seat, and his momentum carried him over a short wall.

He plunged about 20 feet into the arena’s main seating area and later sued for damages in state district court, alleging that the design and arrangement of the suite were dangerous.

The state paid one-third of the settlement, while contractors on a 2010 stadium renovation paid the remainder. The University of New Mexico and contractors deny any wrongdoing.

University spokesman Daniel Jiron said Monday by email that no modification have been made to the suites, and he highlighted that the settlement was made solely as a business and economic decision.

The lawsuit from Bracamonte says that his son witnessed the fall and was emotionally traumatized. The son received $6,000 under the settlement agreement.

Bracamonte landed feet-first, shattering bones in his foot and ankle.

About 40 luxury suites were added during the 2010 renovation to the university arena known as “The Pit."

An attorney for Bracamonte could not be reached immediately by phone.

Navajo Nation: No COVID-related deaths, 13th time in 19 days – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported 30 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the 13th time in the past 19 days.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe’s totals to 34,914 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll remains at 1,464.

Tribal officials still are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel.

Based on cases from Oct. 1-14, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory for 31 communities due to the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus.

“We have to do better — collectively and individually — when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19,” tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Monday. “We see somewhat of a plateau in new infections, but we should be in a much better state than we are.”

All Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The tribe’s reservation is the country’s largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Man convicted of Albuquerque vet's killing to be re-tried – Associated Press

The man convicted of killing a decorated Army veteran at an Albuquerque ATM in 2016 will get a new trial.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that the state Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of Matthew Chavez in a ruling earlier this month.

A jury found Chavez guilty in 2018 of second-degree murder and lesser charges in 24-year-old Tyler Lackey's death. He was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison.

The Court of Appeals found the judge overseeing the trial should not have rejected a request to instruct jurors they could consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Second Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez’s office slammed the ruling.

“This decision turns the roles of the criminal and the victim upside down and we encourage the Attorney General to ask the New Mexico Supreme Court to reinstate the jury’s verdict,” spokeswoman Lauren Rodriguez said in a statement.

In February 2016, investigators say Lackey and a friend stopped by the ATM and Chavez tried to rob Lackey. The Army veteran, who had a concealed-carry permit, took out a handgun and followed a retreating Chavez.

Defense attorneys argued Chavez shot Lackey in self-defense.

Farmington exhibition focusing on birth of energy industry – Mike Easterling, Farmingtong Daily Times, Associated Press

A new exhibition at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park will mark the 100th anniversary of an event that changed the character of Farmington, transforming it from a small, agricultural community into a regional energy center.

“Built by Gas: 100 Years of Commercial Gas in the San Juan Basin” will open Nov. 12. The exhibition will cover the drilling of the first commercial natural gas well in the San Juan Basin on Oct. 21, 1921 just 1 mile south of Aztec adjacent to the current path of U.S. Highway 550 and how the energy industry has shaped development in the Four Corners region since then.

The exhibition initially was set to open Oct. 23, but officials said it was being pushed back due to unforeseen circumstances.

Museum director Bart Wilsey told the Farmington Daily Times that the drilling of that gas well sparked the first of many energy booms in San Juan County, one that also included oil production. He said oil wells were drilled near Shiprock and Hogback in the 1920s that produced such high-grade oil that it could be used as fuel for cars without being refined.

“You could just burn it right in engines,” he said. “That was the first time that happened.”

The discovery of oil and gas in San Juan County a century ago gave the Four Corners its start in energy production. But Wilsey noted it wasn’t until a second boom came along after World War II that Farmington really began to experience serious economic change.

“We talk about how the second boom is what kicked it all off,” he said of the exhibition.

Wilsey explained that it was the construction of a natural gas pipeline by the El Paso Gas Company in 1951 that allowed gas from the San Juan Basin to be sold to customers in California . That prompted major growth in San Juan County, as Farmington’s population skyrocketed from 3,500 people in 1950 to almost 24,000 by 1960.

“That’s when things really took off,” he said.

Wilsey said seven new schools were built in the city over those 10 years, but that construction frenzy still didn’t provide enough classroom space to accommodate all the children whose families had moved to the area.

“They had to have classes in shifts,” he said. “Some kids went to school in the morning, some in the afternoon. It was a crazy, crazy time in Farmington’s history. That’s when all the big oil and gas companies started looking at the basin as a potential business (location), and it just kept booming.”

Wilsey declined to offer many specifics about the exhibition itself, noting museum officials hoped to keep its particulars under wraps until visitors have a chance to see it for themselves. He did say it will have a timeline built into the floor for visitors to follow, and there will be a 1940s era recreated gas station. He also said it will feature some interactive computer elements.

Wilsey said there is no end date for the exhibition. Plans call for it to remain on display for at least two years. He said it will lead into the development of an even longer-term exhibition that focuses on Farmington’s history and the impact of energy development on the city.

“The two really developed hand in hand,” he said.

The public will be welcome to attend the opening reception. Admission to the exhibition and reception are free.