FARMINGTON — Every elected San Juan County official but one is serving illegally, according to a local government oversight group that contends those officials are ignoring a requirement clearly stated in the New Mexico Constitution.
Ron Lyman, Citizens Government Oversight Group president, insists that the constitution requires most elected officials to individually obtain bonds that can be used to ensure they uphold their oaths of office.
San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen confirmed that last December, after Lyman approached him, he bought a one-year bond.
"Instead of anybody saying, 'You're illegal,' I just decided to purchase one," he said.
He said he will buy a four-year bond if he is reelected on Tuesday. Also contending for the office in the Tuesday Republican primary are Mike Kovacs, who recently retired from his job as Bloomfield police chief, and Daniel Goldberg, owner of the New Mexico Fugitive Apprehension Bureau, a private company. Because there are no Democratic contenders, the primary winner will take the office.
"Ron Lyman can't do a damned thing against the commission if they go against their oath," Lyman said Friday in an interview. "But if they're bonded," their bonds can be leveraged against them in court to force them out of office.
County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner said Lyman's position is invalid, and state officials question his sanity. But the statute — written on page 206 of the state's constitution — exists, Lyman said.
Section 18 of Article XXII of the constitution states that all officers elected in the primary and general elections, except legislatures, "shall take the oath of office and give bond as required by this constitution or by the laws of the territory" of New Mexico.
The county commission did buy a bond that expires in October, but it covers the entire commission, not the individual commissioners. Such "blanket bonds," Lyman said, are not the intention of the constitution. Each commissioner, in order to be lawful, he said, needs to buy one.
Fortner said blanket bonds are common practice.
Members of the oversight group disagree, and they say their point of view is gaining support in San Juan County.
The group holds meetings on the third Monday of every month, and sometimes as many as 50 county residents attend, Lyman said.
Earlier this month, Lyman sent a letter to Pat Cordell, Republican Party of San Juan County president, asking to meet with him and his staff to discuss the statute. In the letter, he said the local government's disregard for the constitutional law is evidence of the "insurrection taking place here in this county, if not throughout the state."
He sent a similar letter to the county commission.
As of Friday, he said he had heard from neither party on the matter.
A New Mexico Secretary of State official said about four times a year the same three or four people bring the issue to his office. In an email he provided copies of the blanket surety bond bought for all state employees and officials elected or appointed to office through an insurance policy.
Three weeks ago, the oversight group hosted a forum and invited all 15 magistrate judge candidates, seeking their opinion of the statute. Some showed up, but none directly addressed the issue.
"Nobody wants to touch this. Nobody," said the group's director, a man who identified himself only as "Wm Gilbert."
"The premises of this is this," Gilbert said. When the public elects an official — a sheriff, a commissioner, a judge — that individual's purpose is twofold, he said — represent their citizens, uphold the constitution.
And in the process of entering office the public official must sign a bond, and that bond ties officials to their constitutional oaths, he said.
Gilbert said the issue is serious. "You do realize," he said, "this could go nationwide once it's out."
But others have different opinions.
"They're raving lunatics," said Michael Poulson, a New Mexico Supreme Court Law Library reference librarian, who said he is not the library's spokesman.
He said the statute exists, and it also made sense — in 1887. He said it is a vestige of territorial times.
Many other state statutes are in law that are just as illogical in modern America, such as one that penalizes women who receive abortions with felonies, he said. And only recently, the state repealed a statute that prohibited unmarried couples from living together, he said.
"It just doesn't exist in reality," he said about the bonding statute.
Lyman said he is not a lunatic. All he wants is for his elected officials to obey the constitution, he said. If the statute is out of date and needs to be changed, then let the state residents vote on it, he said.
"I think (Poulson is) a lunatic for not wanting to abide by the Constitution of New Mexico," he said.