How a former New Mexico leader used her power to halt a playground

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A neighborhood had a dream for a playground, and this year, parents were confident their dreams could finally become a reality. That is, until they ran into powerful politics at the highest level in the state.

An innocent wishlist from families in northeast Albuquerque spiraled into a political battle, buried in the nearly $2 million capital outlay bill.

State lawmakers express frustration over capital outlay project delays

Among hundreds of community projects, you’ll find a $200,000 request for Netherwood Park. It’s been a contentious debate about adding a playground to the park between Indian School and I-40. Families first went to Albuquerque’s Parks and Recreational Department in 2021 to discuss adding the structure.

“Social cohesion. You know, I think there’s research that shows how important focal areas, such as a designated play area, create for community cohesion. And they can create opportunities for our children to get to know others,” said Galen Loughrey, a neighbor who supports the park.

But not every neighbor was on board. “I have worked for years in early childhood and child development with all kinds of policy issues and early childhood. And I’ve worked with various kinds of play areas and raised money for them. And what I know is the most creative way that kids play is on their own; they don’t necessarily need a slide or swing,” said Diane Denish.

Denish said she and some other neighbors living closest to the park want to keep it this way. “This is a very unique open, unobstructed Park, and it has been for 75 years,” said Denish.

At a neighborhood meeting, other neighbors expressed concern that a playground could “create areas for bad elements to hang out or sleep.”

To gauge support, some of the families went door-to-door. Residents against the playground sent emails to the city. KRQE asked how many they received: 61 for and 22 against. Two-thirds of families were eager for a playground at Netherwood Park.

To help make it happen, Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino requested $200,000 in capital outlay money. Lawmakers in Santa Fe approved funding for hundreds of projects, including more than $15 million to improve projects at Balloon Fiesta Park, $10 million for a film academy at the Rail Yards, and more than $1.2 million for the Bosque.

The governor vetoed one project in Bernalillo County: the senator’s request of $200,000 for Netherwood Park. Why would the governor look at this long list of multi-million dollar projects and pull out her veto pen for this playground?

Remember the woman who opposed the playground? She’s not an ordinary neighbor. That’s former Lt. governor and good friend of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Diane Denish.

Denish said she called the governor and asked her to veto any funding for Netherwood Park. Neighbors accuse Denish of treating the park as her backyard. “I don’t apologize for having a lifetime of public service where I’ve known these people. I’ve worked hard for New Mexico and being able to call them and having a conversation about something that’s important to me,” said Denish.

“I’m really more upset with the governor for not checking with me or with other people who might have known about this but just taking the former lieutenant governor’s word for this and vetoing it and killing $200,000 that could have been put to good use,” said Ortiz y Pino.

The special treatment didn’t end with the state. Neighbors feel Denish also had more access to the city, and they may have a point. KRQE News 13 happened to be there when Director of Parks and Rec Dave Simon hand-delivered documents about the park to Denish’s home.

Jessica Garate: Would you deliver them to all the neighbors there?
Dave Simon: Yes, Ms. Denish requested those letters. They’re public records.
Jessica Garate: If I request them, will you deliver them to me?
Dave Simon: If you would like to see the letters, I would be happy to give them to you.
Jessica Garate: I would love to see them, but do you see how this looks?
Dave Simon: Our decision was made to not move forward on this play area for three reasons… the lack of adequate consensus for the project, the valid concerns, and the lack of funding.

Neighbors say it’s clear they don’t have equal access to city and state officials. “The loudest voice, or the voice who seems to have the most direct line of communication, is getting the response, and it’s not representative of the community as a whole,” said Nadya Loughrey, a neighbor.

Ortiz y Pino even changed the wording so that the money could go to other parks in the area in case Netherwood decided against the playground.

KRQE asked the governor what was behind her veto. She declined to do an interview but said, based on her understanding, that the playground lacked neighborhood consensus. In a follow-up inquiry, KRQE asked her who she talked to about it. She would not say.

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