BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Candidates Jason Wardlow-Herrera, Democrat, and Chris Luchini, Libertarian, spoke at the October 3 virtual League of Women Voters Candidate Forum. Comments made are represented below:
The Sheriff’s role in Los Alamos, a lot of people don’t know that it’s a unique role. Unlike the rest of the sheriffs in the state of New Mexico, the Sheriff is not the chief law enforcement officer in the County, it’s actually the Chief of Police, which is Dino Sgambellone. The Sheriff’s role is simple and straight forward. It’s to maintain the Sex Offender Register and that’s the only job that they have. The civil process actually got turned over to the Los Alamos Police Department a couple of years ago. I’m excited. I just retired from the police department. I’d been there for 16 years. I was the deputy chief there for six years so I have a strong relationship with the police department and our new Deputy Chief Oliver Morris and Preston Ballew to be able to work in collaboration with LAPD to make sure that our citizens and most importantly our children are safe from sex offenders including updating posters at schools and updating the database along with house checks to ultimately make sure they’re compliant with the state law and our county ordinances. It’s not really a lot of duties but it’s important to our community and our citizens, again especially our children so I want to become the Sheriff to possibly make a change…..
(Parts of Wardlow-Herrera’s comments throughout the forum were inaudible regretfully)
The administrative needs for the Los Alamos County Sheriff has been well-established but the plain text of the County Charter and two different lawsuits have said at the lowest level established that this is not a law enforcement position – it is administrative. As noted it pretty much only has the function defined by the New Mexico Constitution as being the Sex Offender Registry. There are seven registered sex offenders in this county. That’s a fairly typical number. It tends to move up and down by a couple. I believe there are three additionally registered due to working at the Laboratory. They don’t live here but they pass through the county. It’s a fairly small number of people to keep track of. The posting of information about these people on the web is a fairly straight forward task. There really isn’t any innovation to be had with respect to this duty. It’s been I believe more or less adequately executed previously. The one difference I would like to see explored is we don’t have any elected law enforcement in this county. I think if I could wave a magic wand, which I can’t I would like to convince the County Council to put a referendum on the ballot two years from now to transition our county from having a police department and a figurehead sheriff’s department to having an elected sheriff’s department that essentially converts the existing police department over to a sheriff’s department. By the way this works, that would have to be done in four years, which would also be the end of the term of office for this current sheriff’s position. I have explored this issue a little bit. There are some issues with respect to pensions, some technical issues with respect to state law and the PERA system but there is an interest in having an elected chief law enforcement that is not just beholden to the County Council. There are mechanisms, and this is something that does come up, there are many mechanisms to remove an elected sheriff and this has be done repeatedly her in New Mexico, so it’s not a situation where you’re electing someone who gets to stay on office regardless of malfeasance.
What made you decide to run for office?
I just retired and I guess I had been up here 16 years and I was thinking of being done in law enforcement but that the fact the Sheriff’s role here is simple and in the case of duties and responsibilities – I probably could make a difference to my community. I’ve always helped out. I’ve always volunteered, I’ve been coaching up here – YMCA – I’m currently now one of the middle school football coaches. I love our community and I’m enjoying the children and coaching and giving back so I figure his could be one responsibility or one job I could do part-time but also be committed and passionate to be able to make a difference still in our community.
I got interested in the Sheriff’s position about six years ago when there was a lot of controversy about the then sheriff and his attempts to expand the role of that office. I think the plain language of the law and obviously the court disagreed that this was not his interpretation of what the duties were wasn’t supported by the court or the County Charter. I do think that this is essentially a figurehead office. It’s a roughly a $10,000 a year position which is not a lot to pay for maintaining the Sex Offender Registry. I understand the history of why it is the way it is. There have also been multiple referenda to remove the sheriff’s office. There is no requirement under state law for the county to have a sheriff… Simplifying that having a single law enforcement agency for the county… it doesn’t make any sense to have two sets of law enforcement here. If the County Council and the voters don’t want to do that, then obviously we leave it as it is – as a Sex Offender Registry and that’s it.
What would be the advantage for Los Alamos to turn a police department into a department under the sheriff’s lead?
Supplication. … Turning a sheriff’s office into a sheriff’s department essentially increases people’s confidence that law enforcement is responsive to the people and not simply response to the County Council. I don’t see this as a huge issue. I think it does help with the margins. Honestly, and I’ll answer the next question right now, if there’s a referendum in two years and the voters don’t want to make this transition, I would support a referendum to remove the sheriff as a county officer. We spend a lot of money for this. The PERA system, no offense to my opponent here, but if he put 16 years in and he puts another four in, he gets fully vested in the retirement system and it’s a lot of expense and it doesn’t really do much – the Sex Offender Registry is required under the constitution but an arrangement can be made to get someone to take up that duty.
I see my opponent’s perspective on that but right now I don’t see an issue with how it’s being run. I believe under state statute each has to have a county sheriff so that’s the reason why they have the responsibility. (This part of the recording was garbled). Just to clarify I have already received my retirement for my 20 years in law enforcement. I started in Taos County has a deputy sheriff there. officer…. However if I am elected, in January I will have to submit a letter to PERA suspending my retirement. I’m not going to pay into PERA. I’m not going to receive anything from the County from PERA. It’s just going to be my retirement check from the police department.
What are your qualifications for sheriff?
My 19 years of law enforcement experience, including the FBI National Academy, I went in 2015 to Quantico for 2 ½ months there. There was training. I worked for a sheriff’s department and I learned a lot of the aspects of difference of between a sheriff’s department and a police department. Knowing a lot of the individuals, you have to have that strong collaboration with the police department because the sheriff is just an administrative sheriff, it’s important to be able to work with them to have assistance for doing house checks and any other law enforcement duties.
As previous noted, law enforcement here is not particularly relevant. This isn’t a law enforcement position. It’s an administrative position. I run small businesses. I manage staff. Whatever staff the sheriff’s office would have – between zero and maybe half an FTE would be fairly minimal. This is about executing the limited duties and nothing more. If there is any requiring of assistance from the police department on house checks and things like that, I can’t see how that would be particularly complicated. I don’t have any direct law enforcement background other than being a certified firearms trainer for police departments in the past – not relevant here.
I think this is an office that does have some limited duties. It is important to elect someone to it but keep in mind the limitations of this office.
I am passionate about our community and the safety of our citizens. I support our kids…I’ve been dedicated to this community for 16 years as a volunteer, as a police officer, and in many capacities and I want to continue to serve our community which I think is important for the one duty that the sheriff has to maintain the Sex Offender Registry. And I think law enforcement experience is important to be able to understand these house checks – what we’re looking for. Even an admin sheriff has the ability to (inaudible) downloading information…. that are now required by law – to be able to handle and be able to see and know what to look for and pass things on and make sure things are done in a legal and professional way is important. And having that background I believe will help me in this role.