County manager in campaign controversy

By Jack King: CNJ staff writer

Some county residents and some candidates in county elections claim Curry County Manager Geneva Cooper violated county personnel policies by endorsing District 2 commission candidate Pete Hulder in a newspaper advertisement.

The ad, which ran in Wednesday’s Clovis News Journal, lists a number of local residents, commissioners Kathrynn Tate and Albin Smith, Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and “Geneva Cooper, County Manager” as supporting Hulder’s re-election. Hulder is the district’s incumbent.

Martha Matlock, who said she is the daughter of former Curry County Commissioner Albert Matlock, called Cooper’s action “just not fair.”

Carol Nichols, who is running against Hulder in the District 2 race, said she knew Cooper’s endorsement would be controversial as soon as she saw the ad Wednesday.

“The county manager should be held to the same standard as other county employees,” Nichols said.

County commissioners Tim Ashley and Ed Perales said they are looking into complaints about the ad they’ve received from residents.

Cooper said Wednesday that Hulder asked to use her name in the ad and that she had checked two times with county attorney Steve Doerr to make sure the action did not violate the county’s personnel policy. Doerr advised her it did not, she said.

“I believe I’m within my rights to endorse whoever I wish,” Cooper said. “I try to work with my commissioners and I have a good working relationship with them. I would never intentionally do anything wrong.”

Doerr said Cooper called him twice Tuesday, asking if endorsing Hulder would violate the county’s personnel policy.

“I told her not by state laws and not by the personnel policy. The second time she called, I said I would study it and get back to her later if I found there was a prohibition,” he said, adding he had not called Cooper back.

Doerr said Perales called him on Wednesday, asking if Cooper had violated the personnel policy and he had told the commissioner she had not.

Doerr said the personnel policy has three parts. The first prohibits employees from using their “authority or influence” to interfere with a nomination for office.

“This is not a nomination. Nominating is completely different, such as putting someone on the county personnel board or the retirement benefits board,” he said.

The second part prohibits an employee from directly or indirectly coercing, attempting to coerce, commanding or advising another employee to pay, lend or contribute anything of value for political purposes.

The third prohibits an employee from campaigning on county property or time.

“I don’t think she has attempted to coerce anyone and, if this has been done at her home, I don’t think it violates the third part,” he said.

Hulder said Wednesday the furor over the endorsement has taken him by surprise, because he is not familiar with the county’s personnel policies.

“It all started when I heard that Roger (Hatcher, the county sheriff) was going to endorse Carol Nichols. I started putting together a list of people to endorse me. I called her over the weekend and she said, “Yeah. I can do that.”

“She seemed a little hesitant, so I called her again Tuesday morning, before I took the ad to the News Journal at about 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m.,” he said.