DOÑA ANA COUNTY, New Mexico - The Doña Ana County manager and sheriff remain deeply divided over who has the authority over employees in the sheriff's office.
“I believe that I should be the final authority on this," said Sheriff Kim Stewart. "Fernando Macias picked my lieutenants."
"There is a check and balance system to guarantee fairness in the process," said Manager Macias.
In the fall of 2021, Doña Ana County invested nearly $29,000 in a third party consultant to oversee the hiring of lieutenants in the office, according to documents obtained by ABC-7.
Sheriff Stewart said she outsourced the process because she wanted fairness. She said the office had a degree of resentment toward a perceived lack of transparency with previous administrations.
“It’s a cancer," she said. "It grows over time. When I got here, it was malignant.”
However, Manager Fernando Macias soon stepped in with questions about the process. He said the sheriff's preferences for her lieutenants were inconsistent with the consultant's ranking of candidates.
“I had questions," Macias said. "It began with the very top candidate being passed over."
Sheriff Stewart accused county management of abusing signature authority and trying to interfere with the operations of her department.
"You will pick who you want," Sheriff Stewart lashed out in an email from September 10th obtained by ABC-7. "I will make it known to them I didn’t pick them... I have worked snitches for many years and you show all the signs of developing snitches."
Another one of the candidates passed over for the position, Sgt. Eric Flores, filed an ethics complaint against the sheriff.
His wife is also a sergeant in the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office. According to the county, there was a place for Sgt. Flores in the command staff where he would not have had to oversee his wife.
Macias said Sgt. Flores ranked third in the consultant's assessment of qualified candidates, but was not one of Sheriff Stewart's selections for her three lieutenants.
"I picked Skrowronski, Medina and Bayles," Sheriff Stewart wrote on September 27th in an email to Macias. "I told you why and none of it had to do with nepotism. You made that up."
"Will you accommodate him so that he does not supervise his wife?" Macias responded. "Please make it simple, yes or no."
"No," the sheriff responded.
Political opponent investigating sheriff?
Subsequently, ABC-7 learned the Doña Ana County attorney's office had hired Universal Investigation Services LLC to investigate the sheriff in the ethics complaint.
On the New Mexico Secretary of State's website, James Frietze was listed as a manager for the company. Frietze, a former New Mexico State Police captain, declared his intent to run for sheriff last fall.
"The individual in question is not a manager of the company, but basically does contract work," Macias said. "I agree there shouldn't be the appearance of any kind of predetermined outcome or interest."
When asked if it was the county's intent to have a political opponent investigate the sheriff, county attorney Nelson Goodin said via phone, "Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Why would we do that? The investigation needed to get done and we went to a company that's done it forever."
Doña Ana County has since chosen a new consultant to investigate the ethics complaint.
Who has the final say?
The latest conflict is another instance of the political feud between the sheriff and the county manager playing out in public.
In December, they clashed over who had the authority to send employees home during a Covid-19 outbreak.
"I believe that this is a matter of who is in charge," Sheriff Stewart said. "I believe Mr. Macias would like to be in charge of the Doña Ana County sheriff’s office.”
"I respect the differences of authority," Macias said. "The county manager has authority over the personnel process of every employee in the county."
Macias cited a 2015 case, Seeberger v. Goodman, which reads "County Ordinances place the County Manager in a position above the Sheriff with respect to personnel decisions."
"I think it should be disturbing to the public for the reason that I was elected on based on promises I made to the public," Sheriff Stewart said. "Someone like a county manager can either make or break me in the eyes of the public."
Asked whether this was a personal issue, Macias told ABC-7, "It is no conflict from my part."