Robinson: Reorganization 20 Years Ago Produced Dysfunctional Department Of Cultural Affairs

All She Wrote
© 2023 New Mexico News Services

Long-time State Archeologist Eric Blinman recently sued the state, his former boss and the governor over his firing in February. The abrupt termination of the well known and respected Blinman produced a public outcry and petitions of support, along with complaints about Department of Cultural Affairs Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego, who’s fired a string of directors.

When we talk about what makes New Mexico unique, we talk about culture, heritage and history. Archaeologists are the people who discover and explain it all. This is not just about one guy. It’s DCA’s job to preserve, protect and present our cultural treasures.

Most of us think this is important, but the last two governors haven’t cared enough about DCA or its mission to appoint competent secretaries. One result: During a tight budget year in 2016, the former secretary slashed jobs in the Historic Sites Division and staffed up other divisions. This included three new PR jobs. Historic Sites, one of DCA’s smallest divisions, absorbed half the job loss. The state ignored protests of local governments, volunteers, and historians.

By 2021 the two biggest sites, Lincoln and nearby Fort Stanton, were dirty, deteriorating and understaffed. Calls to Santa Fe from residents, volunteers and interest groups went unanswered. News coverage finally forced DCA to act, but outspoken staff members lost their jobs.

This year, after the uproar over firings, the governor announced Garcia y Griego would forego scrutiny by the Senate and serve without confirmation. The two women are personal friends, the lawsuit says.

Blinman’s lawsuit, filed May 18, gives us a peek into DCA.

According to the lawsuit: Blinman first tangled with his boss because she insisted on interviewing and selecting Blinman’s employees even though she’s not an archaeologist. He asked to hire a deputy director and financial person. She said no and then complained because he couldn’t keep up with his work. He reported a hostile work environment to the department’s human resource officer. When the secretary was rumored to be having an affair with one of her subordinates, Blinman feared it would harm the agency and reported that to HR. Weeks later, he was fired and banned from the building he raised money to build. He and his former employees are forbidden to talk.

Blinman sued in federal court for gender, race and age discrimination and violation of the state’s whistleblower act, among other things. Attorney Merit Bennet argues that Blinman had a valid contract and that two Hispanic women, the governor and the secretary, fired a 69-year-old, white male.

Some of us wonder why the state archaeologist or a museum director is a political appointee. The jobs require such specific education and experience they’re unlikely to be a soft landing for political cronies. Why aren’t they part of the state’s civil service system?

I found the answer in a state reorganization that started in 2003. Former Gov. Bill Richardson elevated the Office of Cultural Affairs and three other divisions to cabinet-level departments. In 2004, Rep. J. Paul Taylor, D-Mesilla, carried the bill for DCA. To Taylor, an educator who cared deeply about the state’s heritage, the change would help protect the agency.

That’s not how it worked out.

DCA’s directors became division directors. That came with a pay increase plus increased accountability as appointees exempt from the state Personnel Act.

The bill was controversial. A former museum director predicted that appointees would find it “harder to take principled and ethical stands against whatever issue may come up.” A former chairman of the museum’s board of regents said the bill didn’t protect museums from political meddling. Removing directors from the state personnel system “totally politicizes the museum system,” he said.

I would further argue that the arrangement has encouraged mismanagement, crony hiring and mistreatment of employees because the secretary and her hires enjoy a special status. We are stuck in this bad movie unless lawmakers decide to change it.

Meanwhile, Eric Blinman’s friends are many, and the honors keep on coming. The only people with a bad word to say are a few running DCA.

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