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Martinez appointees jump to secure state positions

April 15, 2018 GMT

The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Christy Tafoya as state parks director in 2015, making Tafoya the first woman to hold the position in the 82-year history of the parks system.

The parks director job is a so-called exempt position, meaning Tafoya served at the will and pleasure of the governor. She also faced the prospect of being summarily fired when a new governor takes office in January.

Tafoya no longer has that concern, however, even though she continues to head the State Parks Division.

In December, Tafoya left the director’s job for a newly created executive position with the division, government personnel records show. The executive position is part of state government’s classified personnel system of civil service workers in nonpolitical jobs. Classified employees can be fired only for just cause after a one-year probationary period, and Tafoya’s probation will end just days before the new governor is sworn in.

Tafoya’s salary didn’t change with the switch to protected employee. She still earns $90,000 a year.

Tafoya’s switch is an example of how appointees of one governor can protect their employment from the political ax of the next governor by shifting from an exempt position to a classified job. Governors generally want their own people in the exempt jobs, which include hundreds of top management posts and are among the best-paying positions in state government.

Tafoya is one of at least 11 Martinez appointees who have switched from exempt to classified positions since March 1, 2017, as the governor’s time in office winds down, according to a New Mexican review of personnel records. All the exempt workers were hired for classified jobs in agencies controlled by other Martinez appointees.

The State Parks Division is part of the Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources. Spokeswoman Beth Wojahn said in an email the department “reclassified Ms. Tafoya into a classified position to ensure her very capable leadership into the future. … The Department is confident Ms. Tafoya is the right person to lead the Division.”

Wojahn said the department sought and received a waiver from the State Personnel Office that allowed the agency to move Tafoya to the classified job without open recruitment for the position. She added that Tafoya’s predecessor as head of state parks also was a classified employee. Tafoya is a nearly 20-year veteran of the division who served in classified jobs prior to being named director.

The New Mexican review of government personnel records also found:

• Tafoya is one of at least four Martinez appointees who moved to classified jobs without a reduction in pay. One of those four is earning more in her new job. Others had slight reductions in salary.

• One exempt employee who moved to a classified position is earning nearly $7,000 a year more than the person who previously held the classified job.

• Tafoya is one of at least two appointees who moved into newly created classified slots.

• At least three exempt employees switched to classified jobs that had been vacant for months. One vacancy dated to 2014.

• At least 10 of the 11 Martinez appointees who moved to classified jobs did so before Jan. 1, meaning their one-year probationary periods will end before the next governor takes office.

• As of April 1, Martinez hadn’t filled at least eight of the 11 exempt positions left vacant when her appointees moved to classified jobs.

Merit-based hires

It isn’t unusual for exempt employees to move into classified slots near the end of an administration, whether for job security, pension benefits or other reasons. It is a long-held tradition in New Mexico state government.

At least 22 appointees of Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, switched to classified posts in the months leading up to the end of his eight years in office and the beginning of the administration of Martinez, a Republican, in 2011.

When she took office, Martinez requested the resignations of all Richardson-era exempt employees and fought to deny them unemployment benefits.

“They serve on an at-will basis and understand that they could be separated from employment at any time, which is particularly likely when a change in administration takes place,” a Martinez spokesman said at the time.

Martinez also threatened to fire any Richardson-era exempt employee who moved to a classified job after her election win over Diane Denish, who served as lieutenant governor under Richardson.

“There’s an awful lot of games being played,” Martinez said a few weeks after the election and before she took office.

In an email Friday, Martinez spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell said the movement of exempt employees to classified jobs “is not something we track.”

“For you to assume that the Governor and/or her Administration have a hand in all of the exempt employees who take classified jobs would be entirely incorrect,” Cantrell wrote. “Exempt employees can apply and be chosen for a classified job without the Administration’s involvement.”

Currently, there are about 325 exempt positions across some 50 agencies. The governor’s appointees are called exempt employees because they aren’t covered by the state Personnel Act, which governs the classified personnel system.

Under the Personnel Act, hirings for classified positions are supposed to be based solely on qualification and ability, although the governor controls the State Personnel Office through appointments. The office is responsible for administration and oversight of the classified personnel system of about 18,000 government workers.

State rules generally require vacant classified jobs be advertised and open to any applicants.

Justin Najaka, director of the State Personnel Office and an exempt employee, didn’t respond to request for an interview on Martinez appointees switching to classified jobs.

Top appointees among job changers

The Martinez appointees who have switched to classified jobs since March 1, 2017, include the following:

• John Jaramillo, who was director of administrative services at the Children, Youth and Families Department, is now in a classified job in the office of Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson.

Jaramillo’s annual pay of $101,000 didn’t change with the move in December, personnel records show. The classified job he filled had been vacant since June 2014.

Jaramillo said in an interview that he is now a project manager overseeing the department’s change in case-management systems.

“It was something that was new to do,” he said.

He said he applied for the position with the State Personnel Office and that there was competition for the job. Jaramillo said he didn’t make the switch to a classified slot for job protection.

He acknowledged it will be tougher for the next governor to get rid of him, but he added: “People can get you if they want.”

• Tamera Marcantel, who was director of juvenile justice services and facilities at CYFD, is now in a classified job as deputy director of juvenile justice facilities.

Marcantel’s annual pay of $92,500 didn’t change with the move in October, according to personnel records. She didn’t respond to requests to discuss her job switch.

A CYFD spokesman said nine applicants met the minimum qualifications for the classified job and that Marcantel was selected based on her qualifications.

Marcantel is the wife of Gregg Marcantel, who formerly headed the Corrections Department under Martinez.

Tamera Marcantel’s old job hasn’t been filled. The spokesman said those duties are being handled by deputy directors of juvenile justice with direction from the department’s secretary and deputy secretaries.

• Sherry Stephens, who was director of the New Mexico Parole Board, is now working in finance in a classified job at the Aging and Long-Term Services Department. She is earning $77,000 a year, up more than $3,000 from her previous job, personnel records show. She made the job switch in March 2017.

She didn’t respond to an interview request.

• Sean Pearson, who was deputy secretary of the Human Services Department, is now in a classified job as the department’s chief of information technology.

Pearson’s annual pay dropped about $2,000, to about $110,000, with the job change in December, personnel records show. The classified job had been vacant for more than a year.

Pearson had been the department’s chief information officer until his elevation to deputy secretary in 2014. He didn’t respond to an interview request.

• Will Duran, who was director of the Motor Vehicle Division, and Thomas Dow, who was executive deputy director for business and public outreach at the Workers’ Compensation Administration, are both now in classified jobs at the New Mexico Board of Nursing.

Duran earned $93,000 a year as MVD director before resigning in November, personnel records show. He had headed the division since 2014. He now makes $90,000 annually as director of operations for the nursing board.

When he resigned as head of MVD, Duran said changes in his personal life required changes in his professional life. He didn’t respond to an interview request.

Dow, a lawyer, made nearly $91,000 a year with the Workers’ Compensation Administration before leaving in July, records show. He had been at the agency for nearly six years. He makes about $100 less a year as director of compliance for the nursing board.

In an interview, Dow declined to discuss why he made the job change. His motivations, he said, “I don’t believe are any of your business.”

He said he applied for the job through the State Personnel Office and that the hiring process was competitive.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong or inappropriate about what I did,” Dow said.

• Paul Pacheco, who was deputy secretary for the Corrections Department, is now in a classified job as deputy director of the department’s Security Threat Intelligence Unit.

Pacheco, a former member of the state House of Representatives, earned $103,000 a year as deputy secretary before leaving the job in December, personnel records show. He makes about $100,000 annually in his new job. That is about $6,800 more than the person who previously held the classified job.

Corrections Department spokesman S.U. Mahesh said Pacheco’s salary was determined based on his experience and is on par with other senior management employees.

Unlike his predecessor in the classified job, Pacheco is also supervising internal affairs at the department, Mahesh said.

Pacheco was one of five candidates who interviewed for the classified job, The New Mexican reported in March. Mahesh said personnel rules were followed in selecting Pacheco for the job.

• Two administrative assistants and an executive assistant, all of whom had exempt jobs, switched to classified positions last year, personnel records show. The three, now earning between about $37,000 and $48,000, all suffered pay cuts.

Contact Thom Cole at 505-986-3022 or tcole@sfnewmexican.com.