A proposal from Bernalillo County’s top brass would reduce the powers of the oversight board for New Mexico’s largest jail, a move that some board members say would render the panel little more than a “rubber stamp.”

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca on Oct. 11 introduced an ordinance that would turn the Detention Facility Management Oversight Board into an advisory board, stripping it of the ability to take concrete actions such as hiring third-party investigators and auditors — measures that some argue are central to the board’s mission. Under Morgas Baca’s proposal, the board would only be able to make recommendations about the Metropolitan Detention Center to county leadership. 

“I think we’re taking away the few tools that we have,” board member Gary Coffin said. “We don’t have a lot as it is. We really don’t.”

County officials, for their part, say the move would make the oversight board more “consistent” with similar panels.

At the board’s Oct. 19 meeting, members were split about the proposal. Two of the six attending said the board doesn’t have the sweeping authority needed to make broad changes in the jail anyway; others said the proposed changes would defang the board and render it merely ornamental.

The ordinance has already triggered dramatic push-back. Board member Jennie Lusk resigned over the proposed changes last week and said as much in a letter to county officials: “I have been frustrated for some time that the board has little authority to do anything besides ask for information and hear presentations – and even lacks the authority to find out the context of in-custody deaths,” Lusk wrote. “I had assumed that the board’s oversight would be somewhat meaningful, but try as I might to find a more constructive role as a member, I don’t believe I have been able to make one bit of difference for either staff or inmates.”

The county manager’s proposal comes just two months after Searchlight New Mexico outlined alarming conditions inside the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), which most everyone agrees is in crisis. Guards and nurses have decried the jail’s conditions in the past year, saying inmates routinely are locked in their cells for days with no exceptions for phone calls or showers. Hallways often are lined with heaping piles of garbage; for long stretches, there wasn’t a single doctor on-site. Conditions reached such a boiling point this year that the state’s chief public defender no longer allows his staff attorneys to meet with inmates in-person, citing unsafe conditions.

Why, several board members asked, would the county move to limit oversight of the jail when it’s in such dire straits?

“The jail right now is dangerously understaffed, they’ve got various ailments with medical care and even the public defender refuses to let their attorneys visit clients due to safety concerns,” said Paul Haidle, a former Albuquerque deputy city attorney who was recently appointed to the board. “I believe that county residents should have increased oversight and transparency at MDC, not less.”

Morgas Baca declined to comment on her proposal and instead referred Searchlight to county spokesperson Tia Bland. Bland said the proposed changes are meant to make the board consistent with the county’s other advisory panels.

Commissioners express concern

Whether the proposed changes go through is up to the Bernalillo County Commission, which could hold a vote on the matter as soon as November.

The matter will meet at least some resistance, Adriann Barboa, the county commission chair, said at Wednesday’s meeting. Barboa, who dialed into the meeting, told the panel she has “a hard time supporting” the changes. “I worked hard to get smart people onto the board,” she said. One other commissioner, Charlene Pyskoty, has also publicly raised concerns about the proposal.

The oversight board consists of nine members appointed by Bernalillo County commissioners. It was formed in 2015 as the county neared a settlement agreement in the long-running McClendon v. Albuquerque class-action lawsuit, which alleged the jail was dangerously overcrowded. The board’s original guiding language indicates its main purpose is to provide “a system of oversight” on the jail and to ensure it doesn’t become overcrowded again.

The board’s Oct. 19 meeting highlighted what some members have long alleged: They don’t have a lot of power at their disposal. Coffin, one of the members, said he wasn’t ever informed that the board had the power to commission third-party investigations to begin with. He said he would have appreciated it if the county informed him of that when he joined. 

Board members said they were told that Morgas Baca would be present at the meeting to answer questions about the proposed changes. She was not. Instead, County Attorney Ken Martinez attended on her behalf, insisting to board members that the proposed revisions were not meant to disrespect the board or take power away from it. “We’re doing this very transparently,” he said at the meeting.

Members of the oversight board sit across the table from county and jail officials at their Oct. 19 meeting. From left to right: board members Tom Ruiz, Gary Coffin, chair Michael Brasher, vice-chair Bob Martinez and member Lora Lee Ortiz. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Oversight vs. advisement

County leadership maintains that the board has always acted in an advisory capacity, making recommendations for the jail’s future but not firmly holding the reins.

That’s led some critics to call the board window-dressing, and it’s also led some board members to say the panel should have increased power to align with its original mission. For example, the board should have had the chance to weigh in when the county hired a new jail chief earlier this month, said board member Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the ACLU of New Mexico and also a former MDC inmate.

Across the nation, it’s unclear how much power civilian oversight boards typically hold, a U.S. Department of Justice report found. Numerous police oversight boards exist across the country, for example. “One of the major challenges with oversight programs is the limited empirical evidence demonstrating their effectiveness,” the report says.

Lusk, the board member who resigned, wonders the same.

“If you’re an advisory board, you kind of think that you’re going to be able to have some kind of impact on policy,” she said by phone on Oct. 20. “But no matter what, you can be dismissed. I kind of question the whole structure. Is an advisory board ever effective? Is it ever worthwhile?”

Joshua Bowling, Searchlight's criminal justice reporter, spent nearly six years covering local government, the environment and other issues at the Arizona Republic. His accountability reporting exposed...