More than 500 Rio Arriba County residents have signed a petition supporting a grand jury investigation of North Central Solid Waste Authority.
The petition is the result of months of organizing and planning by Antonio DeVargas and Donald Orie, two Authority customers who have had liens placed on their property by the Authority for non-payment.
DeVargas filed the complaint June 5 and submitted a 51-page petition, which contains 527 individual signatures, in First Judicial District Court.
The petition alleges the Authority committed malfeasance, misappropriated public money, billed and collected money for services not rendered and committed other non-specified illegal acts.
DeVargas and Orie began holding Sunday afternoon community meetings in February for people to discuss issues they have with the Authority. By March, Authority customers had collected 147 signatures.
Complaints at the meetings ranged from issues with the company’s practice of placing liens on customers’ properties, a requirement for every person in Rio Arriba County to pay for trash collection service even if it is unwanted to its debt collection practices.
Although DeVargas said he hopes the petition gets attention from Authority management and the Board, he believes the real culprit for the problems is the County’s Solid Waste Ordinance.
“We are recognizing really that this thing can be resolved by the County and really only by the County because they created North Central by the (Solid Waste Ordinance,)” he said in a June 17 telephone interview.
The County, city of Española, Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara Pueblo signed a Joint Powers Agreement in October 2002 to form the Authority.
Although it is its own political body, the Authority is governed by the County’s 1997 Solid Waste Ordinance.
The Ordinance requires residents and businesses of the County receive mandatory collection services and “shall pay the applicable service fee whether or not the services are utilized.”
DeVargas and Orie want to implement a pay-as-you-go type system, where residents can pay a flat fee to bring garbage to the transfer station without having to pay for week-to-week service.
This request was included in an 11-item list given to Authority General Manager Peter Fuller at the May North Central Solid Waste Authority Board of Directors meeting.
Complaints and requests ranged from placing a community member on the Board, resolving billing policies, placing a four-year limit on collection of past due bills to removing all property liens for non-payment.
Petition filed with court, not DA
DeVargas filed the petition under an uncommonly-used part of the New Mexico Constitution.
Article II allows citizens to file a petition with no less than 200 signatures, or 2 percent of a county’s population, with the court.
A hearing on the petition will be held by First Judicial District Court Judge Jason Lidyard at 11 a.m., June 26 in Santa Fe.
DeVargas said he was disappointed he did not reach his goal of getting 600 signatures, but is looking forward to the hearing.
DeVargas said he filed the petition in First Judicial District Court instead of with District Attorney Marco Serna because of Serna’s candidacy for the U.S. Congressional District 3 seat, which includes all of Rio Arriba County.
He wrote in the letter accompanying the petition that he made this decision because it “may affect some people who could be important to his election efforts.”
He also alleges that Serna’s office is understaffed and overloaded with cases.
“The empanelment (sic) of the grand jury investigation would be a large burden on an already (overburdened) department,” he wrote.
First Judicial District Attorney Spokesperson James Hallinan wrote in a June 20 email that the document is extremely dangerous because the language in the letter and the language in the petition are completely different from one another.
“It would be inappropriate to comment on the existence of pending investigations or any potential Grand Jury proceedings, and while this petition lacks the proper authority, it’s gravely concerning that it appears to be an attempt to influence the Court to advance a political agenda,” he wrote.