Good news, Albuquerque! Municipal employees now have an Internet forum where they tell the public about waste, incompetence, mismanagement and corruption in city government. It's not controlled by Mayor Martin Chavez. It's not something he should really want floating around on the Internet, either. It's written by regular city employees speaking up about what they see happening around them. You can find their website at www.abqgovernmentwaste.com.
The website was set up in 2003 by Bennie Maestas. He has worked for the city for nearly two decades, including 10 years as the materials manager for the solid waste department, where he saw up close how the city wastes huge sums of money in its purchases of equipment and supplies. Backing up Maestas are other long-time employees with detailed knowledge of the city's operations.
Last week, I met with Maestas and two of his collaborators, who asked for anonymity to protect their jobs. These three city employees represent over 60 years of experience as managers and supervisors in local government. They say waste and incompetence have been a sad part of all recent administrations, but the Chavez administration has "mastered" ways to misspend money and hide what it's doing. They are particularly concerned by a pattern of ignoring problems, such as the APD evidence mess, until they become public relations headaches that have to be addressed for sake of the mayor's image. For example, their website highlighted mishandling of cash in the evidence room almost two years ago.
Reaching back 10 years, these people have a near perfect track record in blowing the whistle on government waste. Their complaints have been regularly confirmed by city auditors.
Maestas established his watchdog credentials by alerting the public to the tire shredder debacle during the first Marty Chavez administration, and he's continued to follow the issue since. This incident involved a $273,500 purchase of a tire shredder for a city landfill. The machine never worked. Discarded tires continued to pile up until they became a serious fire hazard. So the city had to rent a "tub grinder" for $500,000 to eliminate the stockpile. The city never got more than a $25,000 refund from the manufacturer of the defective tire shredder and that nasty pile of flammable tires is growing again.
This isn't sexy stuff. Maestas and his two colleagues talk about purchase orders for hinges and shower tiles, equipment downtime, substandard tire recapping and arcane specifications written to favor particular vendors who then deliver defective service. But when you start adding up the numbers, they are talking about millions of wasted tax dollars.
Take, for example, the mundane topic of front-end loaders, the heavy vehicles that lift dumpsters and compact the waste. The city bought approximately 40 of these vehicles from MCT Industries, a local vendor. Each vehicle was required to be able to lift between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds, but nobody ever tested them before accepting delivery and paying the bill. In fact, none of them met this specification. But, instead of rejecting the trucks and demanding a refund, the city has tried to jerry rig and patch them up as they continued breaking. This has resulted in $3.7 million in repairs and maintenance paid by taxpayers, not the seller.
Their sources are well-researched and reliable. They showed me a memo they obtained just as the ABQPAC scandal was breaking in 2001. Simply put, ABQPAC was an organization that basically funneled money from city contractors to Mayor Chavez and his wife. The memo contained detailed information about the formation of ABQPAC, the city employees responsible for raising money, specific sums requested by Chavez and conflicts within the network of fundraisers and beneficiaries. Many of these details did not come out until the Ethics Board testimony of Teri Baird, the Mayor's Chief of Staff and the Mayor himself. Some of the details in the memo have never been reported publicly. Maestas says the memo was written by somebody inside the ABQPAC network.
Maestas has a whistleblower lawsuit pending against the city that is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Regardless of the merits of his legal claims, Maestas and his group have been right when they speak about waste and incompetence. And what he's doing now won't gain him any advantage in that litigation.
The website is being updated with information gathered over the past two years. Expect reports on a $1 million overrun in the budget for tires, the real cost of the "Mayor Marty's Weed Team" publicity stunt and discussions of recent internal audits.
Is Maestas afraid of being fired?
"I don't want to be out of a job. But the public needs the truth. I have a moral and ethical obligation, especially since safety is also at issue. To be honest, I wish someone else would do this. But everyone else is afraid."