When will elected officials learn that just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right? Most recent case in point: Newly elected Santa Fe County Treasurer Patrick Varela had to fill the important position of deputy county treasurer. He doesn’t turn to a headhunting service or run a classified advertisement in the newspaper or post the job on the Santa Fe County website. No, Varela hires his buddy, Eric Lujan, for the job — after all, the two men started out as bag boys together at Safeway back in high school, surely the foundation for a financial career. Here’s the problem. Even with a broad reading of the job description for the $63,000-a-year post, Lujan does not meet the qualifications.
Does he have a bachelor’s degree in finance, public administration or business administration plus two years of related experience? Not exactly. Lujan has an associate degree in general engineering, with most of his work over the past 16 years in overseeing road projects at the state Department of Transportation.
OK, but what about this? The job allows for an associate degree in finance, public administration or business administration, plus four years of related experience. There’s an allowance, too, to substitute work experience for education. That tiny loophole is where Varela pulls his friend through. The treasurer believes that Lujan’s work from 1995-1997 as director of federal funding for San Felipe Pueblo, plus Lujan’s volunteering on the finance panel of the city’s 400th Anniversary Committee, adds up to enough financial experience. The job includes auditing deposits, financial planning and preparing reports related to tax collection. If the treasurer dies, the deputy steps up.
The two men told reporter Phaedra Haywood, who uncovered the arrangement, that taxpayers have nothing to worry about.
Varela: “Someone off the street might have a good résumé but can’t do the job. I hired him because of his skills. He’s somebody who can effectively do all these tasks. We are friends from way back, but can he handle the position if I’m sick? Yes.”
Lujan: “It’s called trust. Patrick has that trust in me that I can take the ball and run with it. He trusts me that things are going to get done right in the way he wants them done.”
Statute allows the treasurer’s office, like other county elected positions, to hire a deputy. There’s a deputy county clerk and a deputy county assessor. County commissioners can hire constituent liaisons as well. These are at-will positions, don’t have to be advertised and are basically political plums. (Statute could be changed, however, to at the least, require even at-will jobs be advertised.) Frankly, a job as a liaison can be awarded to a buddy without the world ending — failing to call back a voter complaining about a bumpy road doesn’t have potential to bankrupt the county. Having a deputy treasurer who fails to meet the most minimum of posted standards — an associate degree in a financial or business field plus four year of related work experience — is a different, more serious, matter.
Patrick Varela, our county’s just-elected treasurer, can hire anyone he wants to assist him. In this case, Varela chose his friend, his campaign volunteer, his buddy from the Department of Transportation. Just because he can, doesn’t make it right.