Las Cruces Sun-News (New Mexico)
BYLINE: By Diana Alba Soular / email@example.com
LAS CRUCES- A circus of public corruption allegations, city mismanagement and abuses of public trust in Sunland Park has sparked a fire under Jesse Grajeda and a handful of his former high school classmates.
They share a demographic that hasn’t been represented much in Sunland Park civics in recent years: 20-something, college-educated, working professionals. And they’ve now joined forces, pledging to do what they can to change the status quo in city government.
Grajeda, 27, a state employee who’s hoping to be appointed mayor, said they’ve been inactive and quiet for too long.
“We’ve allowed this to come in. In a way it’s our fault for not stepping forward,” he said.
The City Council today will consider appointing a new mayor to fill a vacancy left when former Mayor-elect Daniel Salinas, who’s facing criminal charges, was unable to get sworn-in on time.
Grajeda, a lifetime city resident, said his grandparents, parents and siblings all live in Sunland Park, a big part of the reason he wants to become more engaged in city government. Also, there are plenty of residents living in poverty who deserve a better government, he said.
“The community is at a desperate point now; it needs to change,” he said. “There’s a lot of hard-working people in Sunland Park.”
Grajeda said he’s finishing his bachelor’s degree in psychology, with an emphasis on crisis counseling, and he works for a state agency, though he declined to specify which one until he gets a final approval for pursuing the mayor’s position. He said his friends are college graduates.
Until now, Grajeda said, it’s been “nearly impossible to run a campaign and be elected” for anyone not belonging to two main political factions in the city. But there are qualified, potential public officials who live in the city.
“There’s a lot of educated people there who have a lot of potential and could move the city forward,” he said.
Also hoping to gain consideration for the mayor’s slot is Marvin Martinez, 28, a software developer for Hewlitt-Packard. He didn’t run for the mayor’s post during the March cycle because “I didn’t think that was something I wanted to pursue.”
But after the recent scandal, Martinez changed his mind. He said he wants an honest, transparent government.
“Those are my beliefs,” he said. “That’s what I look for when I think of city government.”
Most attendees at City Council meetings in recent years have been middle-aged or elderly residents.
The current slate of elected city officials is young, but has varying levels of education. One newly elected councilor, Sergio Reyes Carillo, 26, is a licensed teacher for the Las Cruces Public Schools. Newly elected Councilor Isabel Santos, also mayor pro tem, doesn’t have a college degree. City Councilor Jessica Avila, an incumbent re-elected last month, is a cosmetologist.
Sunland Park business owner Robert Ardovino, a regular attendee at City Council meetings, said he doesn’t know either Martinez or Grajeda and doesn’t think “jumping into the mayor’s seat is the best idea.”
“I’d ask them to get out there and talk to people and introduce themselves,” he said. Still, “I welcome people to step up and get involved in democracy and city politics.”
Ardovino said smart thinking, experience and thoughtful planning will be needed to turn the city in a new direction. But he’s concerned even after the turnover of elected officials that nothing has changed.
Ardovino said the council, rather than appointing a mayor, should explore the option of having a new election.
Former mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez is openly seeking the mayor’s post. He lost, but has appealed the election outcome on grounds that voting fraud is alleged to have occurred. But a City Council appointment could place him in the seat much sooner than it will take for the courts to rule on an appeal.
Grajeda said he’s doubtful that the City Council will actually select him for the mayor’s position because the appointment may wind up temporary if Hernandez wins his court appeal. But whether Grajeda is chosen or not, he plans to stay active in city government as a resident. And he may just run in the city’s next election.
“The community is at a desperate point now; it needs to change,” he said.
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