SAT: Forest Cleans Up After Rainbow Family Event, Odenkirk Has Small Heart Attack, + More

Jul 31, 2021

  Carson National Forest Cleans Up After Rainbow Family Event – Associated Press

The U.S. Forest Service has conducted extensive cleanup activities following a large, informal gathering attended by thousands of people in a remote area of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, officials said.

Officials estimate that 5,000 people attended the dispersed camping and recreational event staged in late June and early July by a group known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light.

The group didn't apply for a use permit for the gathering but worked with the Forest Service afterward to clean up and rehabilitate the site, agency officials said.

Work required because of the high concentration of visitors in one area include rehabilitating user-created trails, covering bare spots with mulch and removing trash, abandoned camping supplies and man-made structures such as fire rings, officials said in a statement.

Other work included covering latrines, raking and loosening compacted soils and then reseeding those areas with a native seed mix. The annual gathering was first held in 1972 in Colorado and typically draws around 10,000 people to a single forest. Regional meet-ups were held this year because of COVID-19 concerns.

New Mexico House Leader Resigns In Face Of Corruption ProbeAssociated Press

The second-ranking legislator in the New Mexico House of Representatives resigned Friday amid criminal investigations into her ties to a private contractor for the Albuquerque school district where she also works.

Democratic House leaders announced the resignation of Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton while the investigation continues into possible racketeering, money laundering, kickbacks and violations of a law governing the conduct of state lawmakers.

Rep. Stapleton of Albuquerque said in her resignation letter that she "unequivocally" denies the allegations against her but decided she must devote her time and energy to fully defending herself.

"I have made the difficult decision that it is in the best interest of the state," she wrote in the letter to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

Stapleton, who began serving in the Legislature in 1995, couldn't be reached directly for comment on Friday. Stapleton oversees career technical education for Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest school district in the state and the top employer in the city.

She has been placed on paid administrative leave by the school district.

No charges have been filed against her.

Authorities are investigating Stapleton's possibly illegal connections to a company that received more than $5 million in contracts to do business with the school district and whether she got financial kickbacks.

They executed search warrants at school offices and Stapleton's home this week.

The Albuquerque Public School District declined to comment Friday on news reports that it had been served with a federal grand jury subpoena.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday that she was "horrified" by details of the investigation and that Stapleton should resign if she is indicted.

House Speaker Brian Egolf released her resignation letter Friday along with a joint statement by Egolf, House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos and House Majority Caucus Chair D. Wonda Johnson.

"Given the weight of the allegations against Rep. Stapleton and the ongoing investigation, her resignation from the House is appropriate and in the best interest of the Legislature and the state," they said.

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said "it is a sad day in New Mexico politics."

"I know Rep. Stapleton personally, and we have worked together, but there's no excuse for what she's apparently done," he said in a statement Friday. "Rep. Stapleton must be held accountable, and we hope the investigation and judicial process will take the proper course in this matter."

Eleven additional district staff who are subjects of the investigation were also placed on administrative leave, officials said. They were not named.

The probe examines activities dating back to 2006, meaning other staff who had already left the district might be investigated as well.

The investigation came at the request of Schools Superintendent Scott Elder, who wrote to the state attorney general's office in April, saying he suspected Stapleton was violating state law because of her dealings with a company that provides computer software to the district.

Indigenous Leaders Urge Top New Mexico Official To Resign – Associated Press

A broad coalition of Indigenous leaders in New Mexico called for the resignation Friday of the director of a legislative agency on public education, arguing undisclosed comments made by the top official were disparaging toward Native Americans.

At a rally and news conference convened by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Native American leaders and advocates condemned comments made at least two years ago by Rachel Gudgel. Gudgel is the director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, which provides education research and guidance to legislators.

Gudgel apologized this week to members of more than 20 Native American tribes and nations across New Mexico, acknowledging that her past comments were insensitive, insulting and harmful. She declined to comment further when contacted by phone Friday.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors unites leaders of roughly 20 Indian pueblo communities. A youth committee has launched a petition calling for Gudgel to resign.

The gathering on Friday was also a forum for concerns about shortcomings in state funding and consultation with tribes on public education spending and proposed reforms.

Legislators and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have grappled for years with a landmark 2018 state court ruling that found New Mexico is failing to provide basic educational opportunities to students from minority and low-income households.

Bob Odenkirk Says He Had A Small Heart Attack, Will Be Back – Associated Press

"Better Call Saul" star Bob Odenkirk said Friday that he "had a small heart attack" but will "be back soon."

The 58-year-old actor took to Twitter to make his first public statement since collapsing on the show's Albuquerque, New Mexico, set on Tuesday.

"Hi. It's Bob," Odenkirk tweeted. "Thank you. To my family and friends who have surrounded me this week. And for the outpouring of love from everyone who expressed concern and care for me. It's overwhelming. But I feel the love and it means so much."

"I had a small heart attack," he continued. "But I'm going to be ok thanks to Rosa Estrada and the doctors who knew how to fix the blockage without surgery."

His representatives had previously only said that he had a "heart related incident" and was stable in an Albuquerque hospital after collapsing while shooting the show's sixth and final season.

Odenkirk also thanked the network that airs "Better Call Saul" and the company that produces it.

"AMC and SONYs support and help throughout this has been next-level," he tweeted. "I'm going to take a beat to recover but I'll be back soon."

The tone of Odenkirk's friends and co-stars had already shifted from concern to relief before his tweets.

"Just got off the phone with Bob and he's doing great!" David Cross, who formed a comedy duo with Odenkirk to make the HBO sketch show "Mr. Show." "Joking and japing and joshing. Both he and his family are overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and concern everyone has shown. You will be hearing from him soon. But he's doing really well!!!"

Odenkirk has been nominated for four Emmys for playing the title character, a down-on-his-luck lawyer named Jimmy McGill who becomes increasingly corrupt and adopts the pseudonym Saul Goodman, the "criminal lawyer" who appeared in dozens of episodes of "Breaking Bad" before getting his own spin-off.

Both shows were shot in, and mostly set in, New Mexico.

Navajo Member New Indian Health Service Top Medical Officer – Associated Press

The chief medical officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Service based in Arizona has been named to the same position for the national service.

Dr. Loretta Christensen, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, began her career with the Indian Health Service as a general surgeon and has been chief medical of the Navajo Area service since 2014. She previously served as chief medical officer at the Gallup Service Unit in New Mexico and has been the acting IHS chief medical officer since May.

IHS Acting Director Elizabeth Fowler announced Christensen's appointment Friday to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency which provides health services for about 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in 574 federally recognized tribes in 37 states.

She "has been a consistent voice and leader in the Navajo Area IHS for years, most recently serving as a leader in the area's COVID-19 response by ensuring that patients received quality care, communicating safety measures to the public and staff and establishing safety standards for the area," Fowler said.

Before joining the Navajo Area service, Christensen served 17 years as the clinical trauma director and associate director of the surgical intensive care unit at Jersey Shore University Hospital.

Explainer: How New Mexico Limits Evictions, Provides Relief - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here's the situation in New Mexico:

WHAT'S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

New Mexico is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings. It covers evictions for tenants who are unable to pay rent. Evictions continue for other reasons. The state Supreme Court will decide when to lift the state moratorium and has not set an expiration date yet.

WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

The federal government has allocated up to $284 million in rental assistance to the state of New Mexico and independent efforts by two major counties to help tenants with outstanding rent, utility payments and other expenses. The money can go toward 15 months of rent and other expenses, including internet access. The federal government may sweep away unused money if authorities are slow to dispense the aid. So far, the state estimates it has distributed at least $17 million in rental and utility assistance, acknowledging concerns that many eligible tenants may not have applied.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

State and municipal judges are under orders to halt the final step in the eviction process for an inability to pay rent. Tenants must provide courts with evidence of their current inability to pay rent.

Statistics from the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts say evictions fell by 40%, or 1,977 annual evictions, for the 12-month period ending in February from the same period immediately before the pandemic struck.

WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE'S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Housing affordability is in line with the national average across much of New Mexico. Prior to the pandemic, New Mexico was just below the national average in its share of cost-burdened housing renters who devote at least 30% of income to housing costs.

New Mexico's current vacancy rate is similar to the roughly 7% national average, though the housing market is much tighter in the state capital city of Santa Fe.

State housing authorities say that overcrowding and poor housing conditions have contributed to the high rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths among New Mexico's Native American population.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It's hard to say how much homelessness will increase in New Mexico. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing 23,037 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months.

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