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THE VIEW FROM HERE

City residents deserve answers on probe

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When I moved to Las Cruces in 2002, The Whole Enchilada Fiesta was the one annual event that was listed in all the national tour guides. When founder Roberto Estrada decided to retire the giant ladle in 2015 at the age of 78, it left a void.

In 2013, the city held its first Country Music Festival, a three-day event featuring both local and national artists held on the streets downtown. It was before construction of Plaza de Las Cruces, at a time when the city was still struggling to breathe life into the downtown area.

The festival was an immediate success, drawing country music fans from throughout the region. After a few years, it grew too big for downtown and had to be moved to the Hadley Complex.

Then, in February of last year, the event was cancelled by the city, with a nonsensical explanation as to why. Country music festivals had become too popular, explained Rochelle Miller Hernandez of Visit Las Cruces. It reminded me of the old Yogi Berra line: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

The more likely reason for the cancellation was the investigation into the music festival that had been launched months earlier. In 2019, the city hired McHard Accounting and Consulting of Albuquerque to look into the finances of both the Country Music Festival and the nonprofit group, Friends of Visit Las Cruces, that was formed to help with sponsorships and fundraising for the festival.

Philip San Filippo, the city’s former economic development director, and Jennifer Bales, former director of Visit Las Cruces, were both placed on administrative leave, and are no longer with the city.

The only two people who have had anything to say about the situation since then have been San Filippo and Marci Dickerson, whose local nonprofit group Revolution 120 was also included in the investigation.

San Filippo wrote a guest column published after he had been removed from his job in which he denied doing anything improper and said it wasn’t his idea to form a non-profit group to handle the finances.

Dickerson issued a statement saying that she had never been contacted about the situation and called the investigation a personal attack. She and other prominent business leaders involved in Revolution 120 attended the next city council meeting and warned city leaders that the probe would hamper their ability to raise funds for local causes.

The only other scrap of information we have is that Visit Las Cruces employees worked the festival without claiming those hours as overtime, but that wouldn’t merit a year-long investigation.

When funding for the investigation was approved, City Attorney Jennifer Vega Brown said it would take at least 90 days to complete. It took almost a year. McHard filed its report earlier this month, but we don’t get to see it.   

The report has been turned over to the State Auditor’s Office, which has denied a public-records request for its release, explaining that there is still an ongoing investigation.

While that is a valid reason for denial, it can’t stand for long. There have been too many allegations and innuendos swirling for too long, involving not only our most popular annual event, but also some of our most prominent and influential residents.

The people of Las Cruces need to know the facts. The innocent need to have their names cleared. The problems need to be addressed. And it needs to happen soon.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.

Walt Rubel