COMMENTARY: Fairly or unfairly, government employees often get a bad rap. Complaints about the bureaucracy were likely as common in ancient Rome as they are today. No matter what you believe, most government employees truly care about, and are invested in the well-being of their community.
One such employee is Kristy Ortiz, the city clerk in Bayard. At first glance you wouldn’t think this unassuming, modest person has the ability to move mountains. However, she has scaled the rugged mountain of issues that besiege this rural mining community as it struggles to build on its economic present to define its economic future.
Nestled at the southern edge of the Gila Mountains, Bayard once was a flourishing mining town that supported the area copper mines. The story of that bygone era is punctuated by the old mining cars, machinery and a mural of hardworking miners that can be found around town.
Communities surrounding mining areas often have it pretty tough. Mining was backbreaking work. Wages were low and there wasn’t too much long-term community investment in mining towns. To be sustainable in the 21st Century, mining communities are often trying to catch up on infrastructure upgrades, housing, and community buildings.
Many old mining communities don’t survive, but Bayard has managed to stay alive and, some would say, thrive. During the last 20 years the town has been managed by a series of visionary mayors and city councilors. Politicians alone don’t get the work done and they come and go. In Bayard the one constant presence during in the last 13 years has been Kristy Ortiz, who acts on all the ideas coming from community leaders.
In the six years I’ve known her, Kristy has teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finance a new library, community center repairs, new police cars and water-system improvements. During her tenure Kristy pushed through dozens of other projects for her community from various government agencies. She doesn’t command a large staff, so often Kristy writes the applications and oversees the projects herself. She’s not intimidated at all by federal or state government paperwork or processes. She says she “likes the challenge.”
I found Kristy’s library project to be especially inspiring. With federal stimulus funds, Bayard expanded their old library to include a media room, a children’s room and a public meeting room. The library provides so much for a small town where there isn’t much to do. It’s a community meeting space, internet access point and a place for kids to go when maybe going home isn’t always the best option.
Kristy’s determination to get things “working right,” as she puts it, isn’t the only thing that makes her successful. She’s infectiously positive and, as one of her co-workers puts it, “She’ll do anything for you.” Other than Eddie Sedillos, the maintenance director that fixes the water leaks and keeps up the parks in town, Kristy is the go-to person in when anything goes wrong.
You see Kristy’s influence far beyond her projects. The city staff is a group of refreshingly positive people and there are often smiles on their faces and a decent amount of laughing around city hall. You can tell that, for them, this is more than a job.
The other day, when I was passing through Bayard, I noticed that even their police lieutenant had his hand on a speeder’s shoulder and an understanding smile on his face as he kindly explained why he had been pulled over. That’s something you don’t see every day!
Kristy understands that there certainly are challenges in a small town like Bayard. Substance abuse, lack of economic opportunity, people leaving town and never coming back, not enough things for kids to do are just a few. But rather than dwell on these issues, Kristy just keeps moving. She’s already thinking about the next project and the next challenge to overcome for her town. This is one government employee who’s moving mountains, and it’s wonderful to watch.
Brunner is the state director for USDA Rural Development in New Mexico.