Sunland Park: A city once in turmoil working hard to rebuild trust

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 12:37am

It's was a tumultuous year for the City of Sunland Park having made national headlines for claims of public corruption and the arrests of several city leaders last February.

The city has been working hard to get their finances in order and repair their image under the leadership of their new mayor Javier Perea who's been in office since August.

"At the beginning it was a bit of a shock," Perea said recalling what it was like when he first looked at the city's finances.

The seemingly never ending controversy began almost a year ago after the first raid at Sunland Park city hall.

Soon after, accusations of extortion and corruption followed for Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Salinas... and other city officials.

Salinas was running for mayor against Gerardo Hernandez then and is now charged with using a video to coerce his opponent to drop out of the race.

Salinas did win the election but was never allowed to serve due to the numerous charges against him.

That initial investigation led to the discovery of alleged rampant public corruption and the arrests of several other city officials.

In the following weeks, the state auditor looked at every department and compiled a detailed 80 page report highlighting misappropriation of funds and oversight by city leaders.

Among the findings was almost $1 million from a border crossing fund spent for other city expenditures.

The state's Department of Finance Administration shortly took over the city's finances.    
"It became apparent that we were going to have to be down here after the report was issued," said Tim Korte, spokesperson for the DFA.

With the mayor-elect in jail and so much controversy in the city, council meetings became chaotic.

It was at one of those disorganized meetings in Apri where 24-year-old Javier Perea was given the job of mayor.

His new position was short lived after the city violated the Open Meetings Act by not allowing everybody to participate.

Perea was then given the job once again in late July and has been working as mayor ever since.

"I lost sleep the first couple of days," Perea said. "it is a challenge no matter who was going to be in this position."

Perea said when he took over he expected there would be some sort of framework in place to operate the city.

"Once you're inside you get to see these policies haven't been updated and these policies have never been enforced and there's no policy for this," Perea added.

Establishing new policies was job number one for the young mayor.

He has been building a system of checks and balances to have more accountability within the city, but it's taken some time to get everyone on board.

"It's been like that for so long that people are just used to this one way of doing things and it becomes sort of the culture," Perea said.

Perea has also changed the atmosphere at council meetings.

From angry shouting matches last summer, to order and the efficient handling of city business presently.

"If we are all really aiming at improving and we want to better our community, why is it there's so much fighting between everybody," Perea said.

The city is looking at making improvements for road work and street lighting and additional work on a border crossing.

About $10 million still remains from the $12 million given to the city by the owner of Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino for work on the project.

"With this border crossing it provides a tool that the city can use that will continue giving for many more years," Perea said.

With so many problems the city has faced in the past it hasn't been easy moving forward.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Perea said. "I do believe once we start seeing start getting more public participation and start seeing the money spent how it's supposed to be spent, I think that's the most fruitful thing we can do to bring back the trust from people."

Perea is well aware the city remains under the magnifying glass and said all city business will be handled with extreme transparency.

Perea plans on bringing in more community input by holding workshops with residents asking what they feel is important for the city to look at.

City agendas will also be printed in English and Spanish.



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