COMMENTARY: As a community, we must address the culture of harassment, intimidation and abuse within Doña Ana County. The citizens of this county will not stand idly by while elected officials and sheriff’s deputies ride roughshod over the public without appropriate consequences for verified abuses.
Commissioner John Vasquez used sexually charged and racist language in a public, online conversation with a county resident, who asked a very straightforward question about local elections. Meanwhile, Undersheriff Ken Roberts admitted to at least one instance of sexual harassment of a coworker and has been accused of additional transgressions. Both men have maintained their positions of power.
Sexual harassment, in any form, cannot and should not be tolerated. We demand action and a response from our county government.
An incident occurred between Commissioner Vasquez and Johana Bencomo. Vasquez created an online discussion criticizing elected officials who make political endorsements. Bencomo asked if the commissioner endorsed a gubernatorial candidate. He responded by making crude comments claiming her mother had offered “favors” for his endorsement.
Bencomo stated that Mr. Vasquez’s remarks were “insanely inappropriate,” and Vasquez then accused her of being inappropriate without any context. Further, he made a racially charged accusation, stating “you can take a girl out of the ghetto, but…”
Once Ms. Bencomo made her discomfort about the situation known, the responsibility was on Mr. Vasquez to cease his intimidation and harassment. He continued to assert that his suggestive and abusive language was not out of line. Instead of apologizing or simply recognizing his mistake, Commissioner Vasquez has since called Bencomo’s workplace into question, accused the public’s response of being politically motivated, and even claimed that Bencomo should be the one apologizing to him.
The Board of County Commissioners, at the most recent public meeting on Jan. 25, for all intents and purposes condoned these actions and failings. John Vasquez attacked Ms. Bencomo again. He also spoke disrespectfully of the people who had made public comments in support of Bencomo and of the free press. This behavior clearly defies logic and common sense, if not also the county’s Code of Conduct.
This inappropriate and unprofessional behavior is coupled with the news that Undersheriff Ken Roberts will not be removed from his leadership position for his substantiated sexual harassment of a coworker. As a leader within the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office, Roberts’ continued presence makes each woman in the county question whether or not she can trust that she will receive fair and respectful treatment when relying on DASO for help. That is an unacceptable condition of employment in our county.
So far, the sheriff’s decisions have shown he has insufficient understanding of sexual harassment and the county’s policies against it. The Doña Ana County Commission has not accepted responsibility for changing the culture of harassment, intimidation and abuse.
Will the new county manager be a force for change? It is time that the citizens of this county come together in a real way to demand safe and respectful work environments within the county.
Caroline Barr is the interim treasurer for the Las Cruces Coalition for Reproductive Justice. She submitted this column on behalf of people involved with the Coalition for Reproductive Justice and the Women’s March 2018 Planning Committee, many of whom contributed to this commentary. Agree with their opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.