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Candidates must come clean on backgrounds

October 13, 2018

News that Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education Secretary Rudy Garcia has a string of DWI arrests and served time in jail raises a number of questions.

One, Garcia is not just a school board member. He is running for a seat on the Santa Fe County Commission against independent candidate Mike Anaya. In Garcia’s role as school board member and commissioner candidate, he has had the opportunity to talk about his record, all of it, and didn’t. At least, not until his problems were fully revealed. Voters will have to decide if they want a county commissioner who has told less than the truth on numerous occasions.

It’s not a pretty record: Garcia was arrested a number of times over a 10-year period ending in 2008, including four times on charges of DWI. (The New Mexican’s story about his candidacy in May did mention two DWI convictions; voters still chose him in the primary.)

Now we know that Garcia’s criminal record is more extensive, including two weeks in jail in Albuquerque. Those weeks, he has told reporters, are ones he does not remember. That strains credulity.

Garcia’s excuse is that those arrests happened during the days of his youth. Be that as it may, and we hardly think 37 is young — Garcia’s age when he went to jail for his second DWI conviction — he was not open about his past. That’s a shortcoming in a political candidate and especially in a school board member, who should be an example to young people.

Which leads us to this: In vetting candidates for a position on the school board — Garcia was filling a vacancy left when state Rep. Linda Trujillo resigned her seat to move on to the Legislature — the district needs to do more thorough background checks. We can’t imagine that board members would have approved an applicant for a school board seat with half a dozen or so arrests.

Volunteers who tutor or help out in the classroom must undergo background checks. Teachers and other employees undergo background checks. Yet school board members — whether elected or who apply — do not. Adults who come in contact with other people’s children on a regular basis should be checked out more thoroughly, including members of school boards.

The exposure of Garcia’s run-ins with the law is an opportunity for school boards across New Mexico to run background checks on sitting board members and require them of future candidates or applicants. The Santa Fe Board of Education is considering adopting a policy to require background checks — members should proceed quickly to do so.

A broader issue is in play here, too, with regard to the makeup of the Santa Fe Board of Education.

Why do school board members run for the position and then look for another office? In years past, several members — Jimmie Martinez and Carmichael Dominguez come to mind — moved from the school board to the City Council.

More recently, District 4 representative Trujillo served on the board for one term and was re-elected to a second before deciding to run for state representative. She resigned during her second term to concentrate on the Legislature. Rather than win re-election and then run for another office, Trujillo could have recruited a replacement candidate to run for her seat, given up her own re-election campaign and concentrated on the legislative race. That would have left District 4 with stable representation.

Instead, we saw the spectacle of Garcia applying for Trujillo’s seat in late 2017 and the resulting fallout. He was chosen over John Salazar. Almost immediately, Garcia announced he was running for a seat on the County Commission. Even without his problems with alcohol, Garcia’s push for another office was problematic (and this is on the same board where member Kate Noble was running for mayor of Santa Fe while serving).

It is troubling that the school district cannot attract candidates who want to stay on the board. Stability serves students and the community well, and it’s something missing in Santa Fe. Before the next school board election, we would love to see a recruitment drive to attract candidates to run for the board.

Search high and low, whether at PTAs, volunteer boards or in civic organizations. Talk to people who have run before for school board or who were strong City Council candidates but fell short. Go after young professionals, especially those who attended Santa Fe schools and have firsthand experience with what works and what doesn’t.

The goal? We want competitive races for each seat, with candidates who will pledge to serve out their full terms before trying for another office.

As for Rudy Garcia, he owes his constituents and fellow board members an apology. His alcohol issues might be in the past — there are no recent arrests — but he has been less than honest. That’s an unfortunate trait in an elected official, whether on the school board or County Commission.

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