Rio Arriba County yanks money for NetRoots Nation conventions
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By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Rio Arriba County will no longer pay to send county employees to .
About five months ago, New Mexico Watchdog revealed two workers attended the well-known liberal political convention using taxpayer money.
“Rio Arriba County will no longer honor any travel requests to future ,” county manager Tomás Cámpos wrote in a letter to the
In late May, New Mexico Watchdog discovered Rio Arriba County commissioners approved expenses for county employees and Erika Martinez to attend the four-day NetRoots Nation conference at a cost of about $2,500. The conference was held in June in San Jose, Calif.
Established by , a well-known liberal blog, the NetRoots Nation convention as “one of the most powerful political events of the year,” featuring “some of the brightest minds in progressive politics.”
“We didn’t think of it as partisan or non-partisan,” Commissioner Alfredo Montoya told New Mexico Watchdog on May 29. “It was presented to us as a way to get information out to the public, to communicate better with the public. That’s how it was presented to us.”
News of the decision sparked protest among many county residents, with the local newspaper, The Rio Grande Sun, publishing scores of letters from angry readers and writing a blistering editorial.
Reichelt and Martinez attended the convention anyway.
Two county residents — Debra Anderson and Jose Candia — sent letters to the Attorney General’s Office calling for an investigation into whether the trip violated the state’s
“I think … plenty of Rio Arriba taxpayer money — $2,500 — has been spent on this political paid vacation and it’s not right,” Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview.
General counsel R. David Pederson of the Attorney General’s Office said that while the decision to OK the trip approached the line of impropriety, it didn’t cross it.
“We determined that NetRoots Nation had two tracks in the conference,” Pederson told New Mexico Watchdog, “One, indeed, is a partisan political practice … But another is a good government track, for lack of a better term.”
Anderson isn’t buying it, saying the event is used as a way to promote the Democratic Party in the county.
“It’s a political machine and it’s been that way here for years,” Anderson said.
According to the county clerk, Rio Arriba County has a 77.7-10.8 percent edge in Democratic Party versus Republican Party registration.
Martinez was the county’s public information officer at the time of the convention. She has since left and .
The NetRoots convention’s agenda showed 195 events. While some have titles such as “Digital Campaigns on a Budget,” other offerings included “How to Win Elections with Data-driven Field Operations” and “Legitimate Tape: Using Republicans’ Own Words to Shut that Whole Thing Down.”
Pederson asked the county to quiz Reichelt and Martinez about what sessions they attended at the convention. Cámpos responded with a list that included seminars with titles such as “All Things Medicaid,” “Women on the Run,” “Implementing the Affordable Care Act,” “Climate Change: Congressional Leaders, Allies on the Path Ahead,” and “Digital Campaigns on a Budget.”
Pederson said he is taking Reichelt and Martinez at their word. “I don’t know if there’s any way at this stage of the game to see who signs up for what,” Pederson said.
, Pederson said, “We are satisfied with the documentation and now consider this matter closed,” adding that the county’s decision to no longer approve expenses for future NetRoots Nation conventions is “a sound policy decision.”
“In these situations, you need to be more careful about what you do, especially when it involves public employees and public money,” Pederson told New Mexico Watchdog.
But Anderson is still angry.
“There is not one thing about this convention that is not political,” she said. “I think they’ve been doing this for years.”
In our story in May, Reichelt said this year’s convention marked the fourth straight year she has attended NetRoots Nation. She went by herself in 2010, was accompanied by three other county employees in 2011 and was joined by Martinez in 2012. Each year, Reichelt said, the county, north of Santa Fe, picked up the expenses.
“It isn’t for the political stuff,” Reichelt said. “It’s the very best conference for using social media, for working with communities.”
“If you want to help the county, help the county, don’t use it as a political front,” Anderson said and accused the Attorney General’s Office — headed by — of protecting political allies.
“That’s not true,” Pederson said. “This criticism comes with the territory. That’s the last thing on anyone’s mind here … We try to be scrupulously neutral.”
Here’s the letter Pederson sent Cámpos:
And here’s the letter that Cámpos sent Pederson recounting the seminars Reichelt and Martinez say they attended:
Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski
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Tags: Alfredo Montoya, Daily Kos, Governmental Conduct Act, Lauren Reichelt, NetRoots Nation, New Mexico Attorney General's office, New Mexico Watchdog, The Rio Grande Sun, Tomas Campos