Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Lawmakers Take the Low Road on Cultural Affairs Confirmation


Long-time education leader Viola Martinez said that in her 15 years as a museum trustee, she never felt compelled to take a stand until now.

“I always supported leadership” while serving on many boards, she told the Senate Rules Committee last week. But so many New Mexico people across the state are concerned about the Department of Cultural Affairs, she had to speak against reappointing Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego, who had removed multiple directors in “a chaotic and unprofessional manner.”

Margie Marino, director for six years of the Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, said she “was given five minutes to decide if I wanted to retire or get fired.”

Marino, who had decades of experience, brought stability to the museum, Martinez said.

These leaders and senior staff across the state “are the assets of any organization.”

Joining Martinez in opposing reappointment were four heavy hitters who spent their lives protecting the state’s heritage.

On the other side of the ledger were the secretary’s supporters, who say her running controversies indicate a strong leader, somebody willing to make the tough decisions.

Garcia y Griego herself cites improved numbers for attendance, construction and new exhibits. The department’s vacancy and turnover rates are below the average for state agencies, she said.

Supporters led with Jenelle Roybal, governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, who said former State Archeologist Eric Blinman had ignored pueblo wishes during a project and removed human remains and other materials and kept them at the Office of Archeological Studies (OAS). The pueblo complained to Garcia y Griego.

“Our experience is she is an adept and skilled listener,” Roybal said.

The secretary immediately responded. In February she fired Blinman, who had held the post for 17 years, took his phone and laptop, and forbade him to enter OAS again or speak to OAS employees. Hundreds of fellow professionals protested in writing, and Blinman has sued in federal court.

Roybal neglected to tell the committee some key details. The work began some 20 years ago when the state transportation department contracted with OAS to do archeological clearance related to a highway project. Archeology practices and laws have changed since then, Tom Wilson, former director of the Museum of New Mexico, told me. Nobody who knows Blinman believes he would have acted unlawfully or unprofessionally.

In testimony, 28-year former employee Tisa Gabriel and respected historian Thomas Chavez took Roybal to task for her inappropriate personal attack on Blinman, who wasn’t present to defend himself.

Gabriel told me afterward that Roybal’s statement was loaded with misinformation.

Chavez, former director of the Palace of Governors, testified, “The Department of Cultural Affairs is in its most dismal state since its inception.”

The secretary’s departmental reorganization created a “top-heavy monolith” in which pay increases “do not reach the worker bees.”

He questioned the accuracy of the secretary’s attendance and revenue numbers.

Wilson testified that under Garcia y Griego there had been “persistent complaints of toxic work environments and retaliation. If this was the norm… in prior administrations, then why have we not heard this outcry before?”

He warned that this instability risks museum accreditation, makes recruiting top candidates more difficult, and troubles donors.

Before the meeting, Kent Jacobs, a Museum of New Mexico regent for more than 17 years, and his wife Sallie Ritter, cut $2 million from their bequest to DCA, citing firings, instability and poor morale.

Lawmakers were more impressed by the secretary’s crowd of employees and friends.

The committee chair, Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque), never informed the opposing camp they could bring anyone other than designated speakers, changed her mind a few times about how many would be allowed to speak and for how long, and shifted days.

Thomas Chavez had argued, “The status quo is not an option.”

The committee voted 7 to 2 to recommend confirmation to the full Senate, proving once again that the status quo is the preferred option so far.



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