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Routine resolution bitterly divides City Council; Right-to-work measure raises allegations of racism and unfairness

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City Councilor Jason Perry receives a celebratory cake at the City Council meeting on Thursday evening. Perry was surrounded by his family, fellow city councilors and city staff. (Alison Penn Photo)

Racial tensions arose at Thursday night’s Roswell City Council meeting when one city councilor spoke for over an hour about a proposed labor-management resolution for state lawmakers to consider, claiming support of so-called “right-to-work” legislation originates from a racist philosophy.

Ward 1 Councilor Juan Oropesa asked to have his statement on the right-to-work resolution copied verbatim by City Clerk Sharon Coll during a 4-hour long City Council meeting that took place just two days after candidates officially filed for the upcoming municipal elections.

Prior to Oropesa’s speech, City Councilor Jason Perry made a motion to approve resolution 18-03, which would support right-to-work legislation in the upcoming legislative session in Santa Fe. Councilor Art Sandoval seconded Perry’s motion.

Perry said the council had approved a similar resolution in 2015 that was sent to Santa Fe as an expression of political sentiment from the City Council.

City Attorney Aaron Holloman said right-to-work statutes in other states address questions of when an employee in a private enterprise is required to join a union, and benefits afforded to non-union members.

Mayor Dennis Kintigh, chairing the meeting, recognized Oropesa to speak. However, Oropesa deferred to Councilor Steve Henderson.

“I think that the right to work is a vital element in the economic development of our state,” Henderson said.

Oropesa’s opposition

Following Henderson’s response, Oropesa stated he completely opposed the right-to-work resolution for several reasons. Oropesa listed and explained each reason in-depth for over an hour, adding that he was presenting this viewpoint from community members.

Oropesa also said the City Council did not follow proper decorum, and that Kintigh was playing favorites among the City Council.

Oropesa said if a councilor has issues to present, the councilor may make a presentation as to why that particular issue is relevant for the full council. If the councilor is able to convince at least four other councilors to express an interest, the particular issue is sent to the appropriate committee and then perhaps to the full council.

Citing the city’s rules, Oropesa said at the last council meeting, there were two councilors who had voiced some concern over the right-to-work resolution.

“Basically, what I heard was that we don’t follow our own rules and regulations,” Oropesa said. “This item appears without even coming before the council to begin with, so it seems like we make up rules and never seem to follow them — or at least we don’t follow them for certain individuals or certain councilors.”

In his second reason, Oropesa said Perry was alluding to resolution 15-06 back in 2015. The resolution was in support of House Bill 75, the Employee Preference Act.

“It is still affirming right-to-work legislation,” Oropesa said. “I voiced my concerns last time and I will voice it again this time that this a political issue that has no business for us as councilors to be addressing.”

Oropesa said his third reason was regarding his opinion that the study used to support the resolution was questionable.

Political passion

Oropesa said considering the resolution was a waste of time.

“I think we can all agree that this issue is one of the core differences in philosophy between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I have been around a long time in Roswell to understand the makeup of our community as far as the political structure. So I am sure as legislation is introduced in either chamber this coming year, our local legislators will not have a problem voting for it and supporting it.”

Oropesa also noted that Democrats have control in both the New Mexico House of Representatives and Senate, and therefore had little hope of passage in either chamber. Racial tensions arose when Oropesa alleged the origins of right-to-work legislation stem from segregation, his fourth stated reason for opposing the resolution.

“Vance Muse used segregationist views as an argument against unions and was quoted saying — and I apologize beforehand for reading the quote, but I think it is important, and I quote — ‘From now on white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call brother or lose their jobs,’” Oropesa said. “As repugnant, nauseating and abhorrent as his statement is, it gives us a good insight of this person’s views regarding race and humanity as a whole. So when you connect the dots concerning the right-to-work legislation, it leads us to this individual. So I can’t help but conclude that right-to-work ideas originate from a racist philosophy that should be repudiated.”

In his fifth stated reason for opposing the resolution, Oropesa noted the city of Roswell has three unions, the Roswell Independent School District has two unions, and the Chaves County sheriff deputies recently voted to unionize. He also said that the state of New Mexico has more than one union representing employees, and that unions in the private sector exist in Roswell.

“It is mind-boggling to me that we continually sit up here, time and time again and praise our staff, and in particular, our first-responders, yet here we are discussing an action which supports a path to eliminate their employee protection rights,” Oropesa said. “Metaphorically speaking, Mr. Mayor, it is like patting them on the back for a job well done while sticking a knife in their heart. There is a lot of truth to the saying that actions speak louder than words.”

Minority treatment 

Addressing Kintigh directly, Oropesa noted the mayor has the statutory authority to place items on City Council agendas, but Oropesa said there is a perception by some community members that the mayor applies different standards for minority City Council members.

“And the question is why?” Oropesa asked.

Oropesa also said Kintigh hasn’t been fair keeping City Councilor Caleb Grant as chair of a committee although Grant was recently chosen mayor pro-tem by the City Council. Oropesa said Sandoval and City Councilor Savino Sanchez were not afforded the same courtesy when they were mayor pro-tem.

Perry’s positive position 

Perry said Oropesa’s comments were in relation to the upcoming municipal elections and that Oropesa’s comments were definitely political.

Perry addressed some of the accusations and reminded the council that this was his last meeting. Perry said in his 8-plus years on the City Council, he had never been attacked or attacked anyone personally.

Perry also said in his opinion the resolution was not political because he had known Democrats, including his grandfather, who supported right-to-work. Perry shared an anecdote about a union approaching him and asking if, because of his roots are in the South that he would deny a Martin Luther King Jr. vacation day.

“I was ashamed to think that anyone in the city of Roswell or any human being would say because I was born in the deep South that immediately that I am a bigot and that I was going to do everything I could to keep the employees of the city of Roswell to benefit from a day off of work,” Perry said.

Perry went on to say that unions can both benefit and take advantage of workers.

Back to the Oropesa bringing up Muce, Perry countered the comment, saying the right to work should not be judged by something a man said in the 1930s.

“If we want to get a real political issue it would be the issue of abortion and the issue of Planned Parenthood,” Perry said. “The founder, Margaret Sanger, said ‘We do not want the word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.’ I believe that this state has to pass this law. I do not believe it is political for this governing body to step forward and say that we support this because we are saying we are tired of poverty in the state of New Mexico.”

Perry said if workers want a union, it was fine with him, but he wants private corporations to be able to operate and increase economic development.

Kintigh kicks forward 

Kintigh noted the intensity of the situation but urged the council to move on to other issues.

Councilor Natasha Mackey said the right-to-work resolution involved private-sector employees and companies, and that there wasn’t a reason for the city to take any position on the highly divisive issue. She said she wants to help with the economic plight, but the research does not match up.

“For me, this is not a unifying resolution,” Mackey said. “It’s steeped in perpetuating the continued racial division and we definitely want to come together as a community.”

The resolution ultimately passed with only Mackey, Oropesa and Sanchez opposing it.

More stories on the other topics at Thursday’s meeting will be featured in upcoming editions of the Roswell Daily Record.

City reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.