A Rio Arriba County volunteer firefighter wrote a letter to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office alleging County Fire Marshal Carlos Esquibel does not meet state requirements to receive pension benefits as a volunteer firefighter.
When the Rio Grande SUN asked the County to produce attendance records to verify the allegations, County Attorney Adán Trujillo suggested the inquiry would cause volunteer firefighters around the County to resign.
Velarde Volunteer Fire Department Volunteer Eddie Velarde submitted the letter Nov. 8, 2018, which alleges Esquibel is not eligible to receive benefits because he does not attend 50 percent of all scheduled drills, does not participate in at least 50 percent of all emergency response calls and does not attend at least 50 percent of all business meetings.
Esquibel is the acting fire chief of the Department, as well as County fire marshal.
The SUN sent an Inspection of Public Records Act request to the County April 26 for all attendance records, such as sign-in sheets, for all County volunteer fire department trainings in 2017 and 2018.
The Act states a government entity must allow for inspection of documents within 15 days of receiving the request. The County did not send a three-day letter, which is also required by the Act, to notify the sender as to when the documents would be made available for inspection.
Instead, Deputy County Fire Marshal Alfredo Montoya called the reporter that same day to ask why the request was submitted and what was going to be written. He neither denied the request nor said when the documents would be made available for inspection during the conversation.
The request was amended May 1 and limited the request to documents from the Dulce, Agua Sana, Truchas, Velarde and Chamita volunteer fire departments.
Despite the amendment, the County again failed to issue a three-day letter.
Trujillo said during a May 29 interview, at which time the documents were already 18 days past due, that Esquibel asked each department for the records and had yet to receive a response from the fire chiefs.
Questions sent to Esquibel in a May 30 email went unanswered, including how the chain of command worked within the volunteer fire departments, if he is the highest ranking official for all volunteer departments in the County and to whom the department chiefs directly answer.
Instead, Trujillo responded to the email and wrote that there were no legal questions regarding the Act, but it was whether or not the reporter “would factor in freaking volunteers out in (their) quest to investigate the County.”
“Your email takes a more aggressive approach, so we’ll proceed by threatening the chiefs to produce their documents,” Trujillo wrote. “If they quit, they quit.”
Trujillo wrote in a May 31 email that he was unable to provide a date by when the documents would be available and he “can’t predict when or if (the volunteer fire departments) will comply.”
He wrote in a July 19 email that the records were available for inspection, at which point the documents were 69 days past due.
Entities can deny requests if they are deemed overly burdensome or broad. The County did not issue a denial in this case.
The SUN filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office regarding Trujillo’s failure to provide the requested records in accordance with the Act.
Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp sent a copy of the complaint to Trujillo Aug. 2 and asked him to respond by Aug. 23.
New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Melanie Majors said Tuesday that as an officer of the court, Trujillo is responsible for ensuring County employees and volunteers comply with all laws.
It is his job to enforce the Act and if he is not doing so, he is wasting taxpayer money, she said.
“These are the kind of behaviors that the Bar Association and others in the profession frown on,” Majors said.