OPINION: Councilor sues own town; mayor says bring it on

·4 min read

Aug. 12—Mountainair has an idyllic name and 900 residents. It's a small town but not a peaceful one. Litigious is the better description.

Remember the New Mexico Civil Rights Act? It's a year-old law that prohibits immunity protections if someone sues a police department or other government agency for violations of constitutional rights. Mountainair has such a case, though it's atypical.

Ernie Lopez, a member of the Town Council, is using the civil rights law to sue his own government.

"I'm of the opinion I have to defend myself, lawyer up," Lopez said in an interview. "I have been slandered all over town."

He claims Mountainair's police chief falsely told other people Lopez is "a drug runner." Lopez also says the chief, Juan Reyes, conspired with Mountainair Mayor Peter Nieto "in a continuous campaign of threats, intimidation and retaliation" against him.

Nieto knew nothing of the lawsuit until I spoke to him Wednesday. "I haven't done anything wrong. Bring it on," the mayor said.

Nieto says the only harassment and retaliation in Mountainair's government was committed by Lopez. Earlier this year, Lopez took a personal interest in the town's newly hired female police officer. When the officer became less responsive to Lopez's many messages, Lopez pushed to fire her, the mayor said.

Lopez and his lawyer, Eric Dixon, told me Lopez never dated the female officer. Written messages between the woman and Lopez seem to contradict that claim.

Lopez texted the officer March 23, a week after he made the motion to hire her.

"Hey beautiful how's your day doing?" Lopez wrote. Next day, Lopez wrote her again: "If we're still meeting tomorrow I need to know what time and where." The officer replied: "Dinner remember?"

Police Chief Reyes stated in a city memo the female officer began ignoring Lopez's messages and phone calls. During that period, a private investigator obtained details about the female officer's negative employment record at another police department.

The investigator supplied Lopez with the documents. On April 8, Lopez asked for an executive session of the Town Council to discuss whether the officer with whom he'd been so friendly should remain on the city payroll.

Lopez's foes were equally busy. Reyes wrote a rambling memo paraphrasing complaints the female officer made about Lopez.

"She starts to ignore all his phone calls, emails and texts. She later hears that Lopez is wanting her terminated and an investigation on her because she declined a romantic relationship with him," the chief stated.

The female officer on May 13 filed a sexual harassment complaint against Lopez with the town. Dixon, attorney for Lopez, said the woman's complaint is dead. She resigned from her job as a police officer before it could be investigated.

Dixon also is the lawyer for a controversial Mountainair police officer named Michael Shumate. Mayor Nieto and Chief Reyes tried to fire Shumate for meddling with reports and body camera evidence in another officer's criminal investigation.

Town councilors voted 2-1 in January to dismiss Shumate, but he kept his job. In Mountainair, it takes three councilors or two councilors and the mayor to fire an employee.

Councilor Lopez abstained from the vote on Shumate. The mayor only votes if councilors deadlock 2-2.

"Two to one isn't good enough. The minority gets to act as the majority," Nieto said. "They have government hogtied."

Shumate remains employed, though he's not working. Three of the five members of Mountainair's governing body don't want him on the streets as a cop. They asked Shumate to work as a code enforcement officer without any loss in pay. He refused.

Nieto has declined to pursue another complaint against Shumate for failing to make an arrest in a battery case in which Shumate was an eyewitness. Video of the violence shows an attacker choking and punching another man. Shumate did not intervene.

Dixon said Shumate played it smart. "Outside the video, there were another half-dozen people. Mr. Shumate was outgunned. If he tried to arrest someone, there would be a huge melee," Dixon said.

Attempting to fire Shumate for his failures in the battery case would be futile, Nieto said. Lopez would abstain again, and other councilors would vote 2-1 to dismiss Shumate. That's the equivalent of a tie vote in Mountainair.

Twice Nieto and Lopez have run against one another for mayor. Nieto won each election, but victory hasn't always given him the upper hand.

As for Reyes, Nieto says the chief is resigning Sept. 1. There's nothing in writing yet, but Reyes has verbally given notice. Reyes was not working this week and did not respond to requests for comment.

Lopez won't miss the chief and vice versa. Neither Lopez nor the mayor has much use of the other.

And Mountainair has one of the first cases under the state civil rights law. What it doesn't have is much in the way of civility.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.