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Aftermath: Cloudcroft Council Begins Process of Resetting Police Force

A Rough Week Finds the Mayor and Council Rebuilding the Police Force and More As the Community Wonders What Happens Next
Please play the video above if you want to watch the meeting.
To read a time-stamped transcript of the meeting video, click on the button ‘Transcript’ above.

Last week, the Village of Cloudcroft administration experienced more drama than a season finale.

First, at a crowded Tuesday night's village council meeting, four key village employees resigned: Police Chief Mike Testa, Deputy Chief David Sanchez, Officer Calib Bruce, and Village Clerk Shaela Hemphill. (To see what's behind those sudden decampments, read our coverage from Thursday.)

The public reaction on Wednesday was confused and worried.  Comment sections on Facebook groups devoted to the Cloudcroft area were filled with questions and finger-pointing.

On Thursday, a village scheduled meeting had been canceled. The posted agenda said it was an executive session on "limited personnel matters" per S 10-15-1 (H)(2), which includes hiring, promotion, firing, complaints, or charges against a public employee. 

On Friday, May 17th, the council held a public work session that brought the police scheduling issue to the forefront.

The meeting began with the niceties. 

The council awarded employee excellence recognition to Anthony Courvoisier, a Water Operator for the Water and Waste Water Department who departs after seventeen years with Cloudcroft. He has accepted a new position in Santa Fe and says of Cloudcroft, where he has also served as Cloudcroft Light Opera Company (CLOC) Board Vice President, "Couldn't have raised a family in a better place." 

Trustee Timothy King spoke highly of Courvoisier to the Cloudcroft Reader, saying, "He's a great guy. Sad to see him go. He's been here for 17 years. All that institutional knowledge is going to be gone." 

Immediately after Courvoisier received his Plaque of Excellence, he and Public Works Supervisor Joe John Carrizal hurried off to fix a water main break. 

After swift goodbyes, the council began discussing a new police schedule—the central wedge between the council and the resigning police officers.  

The Night Shift

The crux of the dispute in scheduling is over what happens at night. 

Mayor Craig Turner made clear his goal to the group. 

"We are seeking and working towards complete 24-hour coverage in our village. AM, PM, and offer the protection that we deserve and that you deserve. And what we're actually paying for, too, right now, in the past, we've been paying officers for a 48-hour session. Yet, in that 48-hour session, they could go home and sleep for a time period there. And so basically—getting paid for resting. And understand me, I'm not a tyrant. I know everybody needs rest and stuff like that. But what we've been promising, we really have not been delivering. And so it's very important to me, the trustees, and the village that y'all have 24-hour coverage that y'all deserve."

What is the difference between the two schedules? 

Officers work a 48-hour shift each week, with the remaining days off. During the shift, they are allowed two 8-hour rest periods. The debate focuses on resting during a shift and where the rest can occur. During the April budget retreat discussions, Testa said, "Because I believe in full-time, just 48-hour shifts. But I disagree with 12-hour shifts." 

Trustee James Maynard countered, "But see, we don't get coverage. The other day, coming up the hill, I passed you, and at 7:51, you're headed down the hill. You're not patrolling. You're going home. And so we aren't covered." 

Also, on day two of budget talks, Turner said, "In this new schedule, the chief would be patrolling, as well." 

Testa maintained that two officers do spend the night in Cloudcroft. He said, "They're here." 

Maynard said, "But that's not full coverage." 

The Police Department (PD) lease at the Cloudcroft Fire Station was quietly allowed to lapse in light of the newly constructed Police Station. According to Fire Chief Erich Wuersching, renewing that lease or outfitting the brand-new police station for rest are still viable options.

To Panama or Bust

What does the proposed Panama plan look like?

The council offered a mock schedule during the workshop. 

Police would work three days on and three days off. Turner said,

"For example, if we look at June 1st, it would be Officer A would work AM, Officer B would work PM, and Officer C and D would be off. That would go through the third, and then on the third, Officers A and B would be off the next three days, and Officers C and D would be AM and PM the next three days."

Mayor Turner said his research suggested switching the day and night shift assignments every 90 days.  Sheriff Black noted the transition from day to night shifts takes about two full weeks until “your body [is] accustomed."

Mayor Turner referenced the recent annual budget retreat discussion of the shift in hours—transitioning to a Panama-style schedule would reduce the pay period hours from 96 to 84. At the retreat, the council seemed amenable to increasing wages, so salaries remained stable despite lessened hours. 

"We agreed in the budget retreat," said Turner, "that we would increase all of y'all's hourly wages to ensure that you're not losing any money yet going down to 84 hours. So that's already been planned for the next fiscal year."

The Five-Month Impasse: Manpower, Pay, and Village Liability

Why don't the officers agree? 

According to the unmarked and postage-less letter that mysteriously appeared in all the Cloudcroft Village Post Office boxes in March of this year, the changes "cut Testa's pay to less than he earned as a patrolman." 

In an interview on Wednesday, May 15th, former chief Testa said,

"If you say the council wants to get rid of the police department, they say 'oh no. No, we don't want to do that,' but every sign points toward that. When you don't even reason with us, you won't even give the chief a raise.  I worked ten weeks of comp time. So they appointed me chief and said, 'You'll be working four days a week, ten hours a day. Okay, great. That's what the chiefs usually do. Well, we have an officer in training, and he has been there ever since I was appointed chief. So I've been working a regular officer schedule, the 48 on and then off.  Between that and attending meetings, I accumulated ten weeks of unpaid time. When I got to that point, I told the mayor. I said, 'I got way too much time.' He said, 'Just you know, when you got appointed, [it was] on salary. Do you understand? Yeah, you're gonna have to work some extra.'  You have to fill in for a guy and work a busy weekend, but I was doing way more than that. So I got ten weeks of time with no pay, and I said I gotta take off from the mess."

The necessity of a night patrol has been questioned.

According to Testa, former Deputy Chief David Sanchez said that in the last year, there were 62 night calls. The Cloudcroft Reader confirmed that only four of those calls were made after midnight. 

Turner reasons:

"It only takes one incident where someone gets hurt bad at 3 in the morning, or whatever, where, and God forbid, I don't want this to happen, but it's only gonna take one incident like that where someone gets hurt badly, and if we don't have an officer on duty, this village is liable for that. And so we've got to make sure we're protected, not only from a liability standpoint but also make sure that our village is protected."

"I didn't blindside anybody with this. When I interviewed Chief Testa for the chief position, I shared with him right then said, Chief, I want 24-hour coverage. He told me in that interview that he had said, 'I understand, I have no problem with that.' The only thing I told him is that I don't know what that looks like because I'm not a police officer, and I've never built a schedule before….Well, we now know what it looks like. It's the Panama schedule."

The next question is how the Village elects to staff the Panama plan. Can it work with just four officers, or does it require more? And if it does, can the Village afford it?

Trustee James Maynard said of working towards a true 24-hour patrol, "It boils down to: how can we afford it? And are we getting what we pay for it?" 

The answer is not more officers, says Maynard.

"You're putting a huge burden on the community if you decide to increase the number of officers without a comparable increase in your population or your business activity. This money has to come from somewhere. If you spend it all on law enforcement, that sounds good; it feels good. And then you can't fix your roads, you can't fix your water, and you can't take care of the other government responsibilities. There is a limit to how much money this town has. This tough job of this table is trying to, in some way or another, come up with a balance of these priorities. If it were easy, we wouldn't even be here. We'd already done it."

Maynard elaborated that the request for six officers to fulfill the Panama schedule was unsustainable, and "once you go over five, you can't go back." Currently, the village operates under the "Small Entity" exemption, and Cloudcroft PD officers do not receive overtime pay. 

The County Weighs In

When asked his opinion, Sheriff Black stated, "I gave pros and cons for the [Panama schedule]. I did not want to get involved in making that decision."

Sheriff David Black and the sole remaining Cloudcroft PD officer, Chris Swanson, were in attendance, as were former law enforcement representatives from the community, like Vickey Wiley

The mayor was quick to thank the one police officer who remains on the force. "I'd like to commend Officer Swanson. He is staying with us and fighting this with us. And he has agreed to do what he can to help us over the next 30, 60 days."

Officer Swanson agreed to work with the mayor on a schedule covering Cloudcroft's busiest times, saying, "I'm flexible on that."

Swanson needs help in the interim. The council hopes to rely on county law enforcement while hiring new officers during the transition.  

Sheriff Black said a similar situation took place in Tularosa, and the Otero County Sheriff's Department plays a support role in responding to their emergency calls.

"We've been doing the same thing for Tularosa for six months. We're gonna respond to emergency calls, okay? If there's any threat of life, anything like that, we're gonna respond to that. If it's something as far as loud music, something like that, that can be held. That's gonna hold until your officer gets back on one duty, and they can take care of that. Anything that, again, has accidental injuries, robbery, stuff like that, we're gonna send somebody. We're gonna help you guys out."

But it isn't without strain. Black said, "This has hit my budget really hard. We're getting stretched very thin. This will make it thinner, both on the financial and personnel side. "Mayor Turner acknowledged that Village may have to agree on compensation. 

Turner admitted the challenge at hand.

"We need to be honest in saying, yeah, the sheriff may, the state police may cover on the reactive side for a 911 response. But they're probably not going to respond on the proactive side of community policing our streets, responding to loud noise ordinances, a dog, or those sorts of things. We probably will lose that, and we need to be aware of that."

Funding, Willing Parties, and the Vote

During the workshop, Black explained two key funding avenues for police departments: the Law Enforcement Retention Fund and the Law Enforcement Protection Fund (which he worked to apply for the village with former Chief Testa). Vickey Wiley proposed tapping the volunteer reserve of former law enforcement officers on the mountain. 

After the meeting, Sheriff Black alerted the council to bill NM HB236, which was recently passed in the state legislature and allows retired law enforcement officers to re-enter the workforce. 

Black served on the Cloudcroft police force from 2009 to 2018. He said of his time on the mountain, "I loved it up here. It's a good community with good people."

At the time of this writing, the village website has an open application for police officer positions live on the website. The applications for Police Chief and Village Clerk have yet to be posted. 

At Friday's workshop, Turner mentioned that four interested candidates had contacted him by phone after the news of the vacancies was announced.

"I totally understand that some people are gonna agree with me and disagree with the trustees. And I totally respect that. And I appreciate y'all being here to say what you had to say. But I truly believe in my heart of hearts, if we'll give this, once we get everybody in the place if we provide this 90 days, I think we're gonna be, I think everyone is gonna be very pleased. Across the board, I do. The officers who have already verbally said to me that they're interested are coming from a Panama schedule. So they're already used to it. They have no problem with it. "

The mayor and the council will now decide on the police schedule. There will be no negotiating with the former officers—all parties seem to have moved on.

At the end of the discussion over police scheduling, the mayor acknowledged Officer Swanson would receive an increase in his hourly rate. 

After the discussion on Officer Swanson's new compensation, Acting Village Deputy Clerk Vyanca Vega, who was voted into that position for a 21-day period by the Council on Tuesday, lobbied for a pay bump for herself, citing her increased workload. The council took no action on her request at the meeting.

The council is legally bound to postpone voting on any matter until a special meeting is scheduled, giving the public a minimum of 72 hours notice.

That's the end of the Friday meeting. But there's more to report.

What else happened at the Tuesday night council meeting? 

In the course of approving minutes from several previous meetings, including the special meeting regarding the Ski Cloudcroft lease, Trustee James Maynard made sure the minutes reflected his comments: that no representative from the Forest Service was in attendance to comment on the lease; budgetary changes weren't reflected in the discussion; and no legal counsel was present.

Turner announced that the village secured a $300,000-plus grant to work on fire infrastructure. Fire Chief Erich Wuersching reported that the EMS/Fire Department was awarded a grant for one CPR compression machine. Grant writer Lauren Groesbeck announced that the village had applied for several extra waste containers through a New Mexico Clean and Beautiful Grant throughout the summer. 

Trustee Timothy King said the village received a roughly $20,000 grant from the Southeastern New Mexico Economic Development District to implement a Geographic Information System (GIS) for mapping and storing village data. King elaborated, "pretty much everything we asked for, we're gunna get," including the Matterport imaging program. 

The Lodger's Tax Committee has acquired new software to ease the collections process and improve compliance rates. Chairman Karl Campbell said they've "approved the mayor's request of $20,000 for Christmas decorations for Cloudcroft's business districts." 

Chamber of Commerce Board President Debra Spears and Manager Kendra King described chamber events and advertising efforts, reporting that over 40 vendors were approved for the upcoming May Fair festival, 50 vendors for Cloudcroft Beerfest, and the addition of a "5k Run for Rudolph" as part of the Christmas in July event. 

Following the news of a suddenly hollowed-out police force in the village and considering upticks in Cloudcroft visitors due to chamber events, Kendra King said, "We hire out on-site and overnight security. It would have been nice to have their presence the days leading up to [May Fair] to ensure the park isn't disturbed before the event." 

During the Chamber of Commerce report at the Tuesday meeting, the board's new treasurer, Tony Liello, said, "I'm working on last year's books, going over every item—making sure every dollar, every penny is accounted for," and shared plans to have a full report soon. He said, "We've had problems in the past, and I want to make sure we don't get into that kind of issue anymore." 

Mayor Turner reported that phase one of the Direct Potable Reuse project to "backwash" our grey water to flush out sewage screens was in motion, and "that project will be done within the next two weeks." The new measures are projected to save the village about $350,000 in costs and 1.4 million gallons of clean drinking water per year previously used for cleaning. 

Trustee Maynard said the village didn't detect major leaks on this month's water report but has been "a problem for 30 years. We are pumping 4.6 million gallons but billing for 2.2 million. I like to bring that up each month… because it's a giant problem, a problem with limited resources to apply." 

The council voted and approved moving into Level One Water restrictions. You can read those here

Fire Chief Erich Wuersching requested the council vote to grant the mayor power to enact fire restrictions, stating, "I do think we'll have to move to restrictions in the next 30 days." You can read about fire restriction levels here. 

Wuersching presented on the FireWise USA program with representative Nick Smokovich. Smokovich laid out the steps for becoming a FireWise USA community: "Insurance companies do weigh in their risk assessments." 

A private national program, FireWise USA, was created in 1992 in partnership with the USDA Forest Service and promises to "increase ignition resistance of homes and communities." While discussion of enforcing ordinances was part of the FireWise objectives, Smokovich said property cleanup could "start small" and involve something "as simple as cleaning up pine needles." 

Wuersching said that the "[United States Forest Service] recently approved a large plot of land surrounding Cloudcroft that's a mile-wide radius" that can be worked on for fire mitigation. Smokovich mentioned that as of Monday, May 13th, all of Otero County received a Community Wildfire Protection Plan grant.

One step toward becoming a FireWise USA community would be to create a village board of at least three people. The mayor asked if anyone was interested, so please let him know

Parks and Recreation Chairman Matt Willett requested that the council give the committee notice of parks and recreation-related project meetings, citing the May 9th pickleball courts village meeting with the contractor's representative as an opportunity lost. 

Turner said the pickleball court supplies to finish the courts will be here on May 23rd. They will begin the finalization on May 28th. "After a long time, you guys, the village, will play on those courts by June 15th." Turner anticipates the courts will have netting on the surrounding fence to help dampen winds. Maynard inquired about the removal of the mounds of rubble left in Zenith Park, which were leftover from the new court construction.

Public Works' road repairs will resume now that the weather is nice. The council approved a budget of $1,000 for a part-time maintenance employee for the summer. 

Turner said," I'm very proud of the balanced budget. " 

Maynard countered that after village repairs, raises, and adjustments, "we're not in balance anymore." 

The council ended the meeting by discussing upcoming workshops and voting to approve and maintain the Open Meetings Act. 

You can read about April's regularly scheduled meeting and the budget retreat meetings here on the Cloudcroft Reader. 

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