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Councilor addresses Christmas Railway event funding

Councilor Jacob Roebuck asks a question at the Roswell City Council's Finance Committee meeting last Thursday. Roebuck recused himself from voting and discussing the Roswell Christmas Railway and Tour de Ocho Millas. Councilor Stubbs, Juanita Jennings, Larry Connolly, James Edwards, Chanel Rey, Becky Hicks, Councilors Steve Henderson and Caleb Grant and Finance Director Monica Garcia are also pictured. (Alison Penn Photo)

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City Councilor Jacob Roebuck, whose company Roebuck Entertainment produces the Roswell Christmas Railway, responded this week after the New Mexico Governmental Conduct Act was brought up during a finance committee vote last week to recommend lodgers’ tax funding for the annual holiday event.

According to Attorney General Hector Balderas, “The New Mexico Governmental Conduct Act (GCA) governs the ethical and legal conduct of public officers and employees at all levels of government. The GCA provides guidance to those trusted to serve the public interest by establishing parameters for ethical and legal conduct. The GCA can also be used by members of the public to evaluate the work of those entrusted with public trust.”

Councilor Steve Henderson mentioned the act to explain his vote against lodgers’ tax funding for the Roswell Christmas Railway. The requested amount for the event was $20,500. Henderson said he believed there was a conflict of interest since Roebuck was both an elected official and the producer of the Railway event, which receives lodgers’ tax funding.

Roebuck clarified the Christmas Railway attraction was not the issue last week, just approving or denying the lodgers’ tax to fund it. He said he hopes this will be in the discussion at the full city council meeting on Thursday.

Roebuck said he has consulted with various attorneys who interpreted that he was not in conflict (with the New Mexico Governmental Conduct Act), and he has followed the act. He said he and his associates do not want anyone, including themselves, in trouble so they have cautiously paid attention to the act.

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Roebuck said he has “no fear” of the attorney general reaching out to inform him that something is amiss — after speaking with attorneys, former city officials, and City Manager Joe Neeb and City Attorney Aaron Holloman. Roebuck said the city reached out to the state attorney general, and he (Roebuck) believes the attorney general declined to give an opinion on the matter. Roebuck said when he reached out to the New Mexico Municipal League, they also declined, deferring judgment to the city attorney.

Roebuck said to his understanding, he would be free from a conflict of interest if he recused himself from any vote or discussion on topics he has a financial interest in.

He added that the Christmas Railway goes through a competitive process to acquire these funds and, just like during the finance committee meeting, he will recuse himself from the vote during Thursday’s full city council meeting.

“The (governmental) conduct act doesn’t forbid public officers or employees — it mentions those as well — from receiving funds from the city,” Roebuck said. “Rather it really spells out the conditions when that’s appropriate.”

In the bigger picture, Roebuck said his concern is for Roswell citizens who may want to run for public office, and who are involved in local commerce, being prevented from working with the city.

“We don’t want to preclude them from running,” Roebuck said. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other, assuming that they meet the requirements that are spelled out in the government conduct act.”

“We have so much support for the Christmas Railway and I feel like that the councilor who might be against this — I hope that with a better understanding of some of these rules that they won’t vote against it (lodgers’ tax funding),” Roebuck said. “We’ll see what happens and whatever happens the Railway is going to go on. We are going to keep pushing forward with it.”

To clarify, Roebuck said “we” included all the people that support the Christmas Railway, those that work with and for him, and those that support him as a city councilor.

“The city is getting a great event,” Roebuck said of the Christmas Railway. “It’s bringing in tourists. It’s bringing visitors into our town. It’s bringing a little bit of GRT (gross receipts tax). It’s getting people some employment and we’ve done that without dipping into the general fund.”

With the event coming up on its third year, Roebuck said it has passed muster all three years with the occupancy tax board and the finance committee. Roebuck that said that since public perception is important, the Christmas Railway reports its numbers. The contract allows Roebuck Entertainment to put on the event, from roughly Thanksgiving to Christmas, at Spring River Park & Zoo.

Roebuck said the current contract for the Christmas Railway attraction was officiated before he was sworn in. The date on the contract is Sept. 27 and an extension was acknowledged by City Manager Joe Neeb on March 5. With the understanding that one-year contracts have a one-year extension limit, Roebuck said 2019 contract will require a competitive process to prove he is not receiving any “special favors” for the event.

Adding that the Christmas Railway contributes to making the community a better place to live, Roebuck said he has met criteria and is not in violation of the conduct act. Roebuck said the act is in place so that no one will take advantage of the city, and to establish rules for city officials and employees to do business with the city without a conflict of interest.

The 60-pages of Governmental Conduct Act can be viewed through the Attorney General’s website (nmag.gov).

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

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