The three candidates for municipal judge tackled questions dealing with first-offender programs, race in the decision process, crime trends ahead and the need for an additional judge during a Rio Rancho TEA Party forum Thursday night at the Inn at Rio Rancho.
The three-hour forum, moderated by Moses Winston IV, also featured seven of the nine candidates running for city council and the four mayoral hopefuls.
Ten questions tailored to each office — based on submissions from Rio Rancho residents — were presented to each candidate ahead of the event. They were asked to choose any three to answer.
Incumbent Municipal Judge G. Robert Cook faces two challengers in the March 4 election: Ramon Montaño, a small business owner and former Las Vegas, N.M., school board member, and Jeffrey Goen, a 17-year law enforcement veteran.
Race in decisions
One of the questions Montaño elected to answer dealt with where a person’s race fell in the decision process. He guaranteed “race and profiling will not be allowed in my courtroom.”
“If people feel that’s taking place in the courtroom, I would reach out to the mayor and council and different organizations here in Rio Rancho to stop that from happening,” he said.
Goen and Cook addressed a question asking why Rio Rancho only has one municipal judge.
With more than 90,000 residents, Rio Rancho should have more than one judge, Goen said. But he said the city is in “dire financial shape right now.”
“We sit here and talk about city police needing more police officers, better pay, our city streets, water issues … ,” he said. “Municipal court is no different. We need funding. But in the meantime, we just have to do the best we can until the city and its funding improves.”
Cook said he recognized the need for a second judge as far back as 2008.
He said similarly sized Las Cruces has two busy judges, with very few DWI cases, and that Santa Fe’s one judge uses alternates to supplement her schedule, which is prohibited by the Rio Rancho charter. He said he has begun the process of asking the city to fill a staff position in 2015 to start building support for a second judge.
Asked what crime that comes before the bench could cause him the “most consternation,” Montaño responded, “Any crime that impacts our community in a negative way really concerns me. Whether it is repeat DWI offenders or people committing domestic violence — those cases cause me great concern.”
He said not all cases, such as minor parking offenses, need to go to trial.
In response to a question, Cook said first-offender programs are “the backbone” of municipal court and are an opportunity for defendants, particularly young people, to make a change in their lives. He cited his experience in knowing when first-offender programs are appropriate.
Goen said he largely agreed with Cook about giving people second chances.
He warned, though, “If you come into Judge Jeffrey’s court and you are proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, guilty of DWI two or three, you will receive the maximum sentence from this judge.”
Cook and Goen viewed DWI offenses as the crime trends they foresee municipal judges will continue to have to deal with in the future. Goen also said the struggling economy is affecting crime rates.
Cook pointed out the courts have to adapt to changes in the law. For instance, as of Jan. 1, a city prosecutor has to prosecute all DWI cases.
“That causes a problem because the court manages the court-appointed attorney budget,” he said.
New vs. experienced
Montaño and Goen disputed Cook’s assertion that electing a new judge would put the court in the position of having to start over. Cook said it takes two to three years to train a municipal judge.
“He has to go through the same continuous training we do every year, so we’re not starting all over,” Goen said.
Montaño said he had many years of experience working with public safety and health care, public schools and budgets. He said judges need to be vocal about bringing department deficiencies to the public’s attention.
The council candidates —Dawnn Robinson and Sandra Atwood in District 2, Cheryl Everett in District 3 and incumbent Tim Crum, Tom Buckner, Shelby Smith and Paul Howell in District 5 — answered questions about subjects ranging from economic development and increasing revenue to fixing the water system and roads.
District 3 incumbent Tamara Gutierrez and District 2 candidate Darlene Collins did not attend the forum because of other commitments.
Mayoral candidates Gregg Hull, Mike Williams, Morgan Braden and Jim Owen dealt with questions on commercial corridors and Intel, as well as duties of a full-time mayor and development in the City Center.