Sheriff Baca Returns After 6 Month Absence

By: GPK Media

Six months have passed since Sierra County Sheriff Joe Baca, without public announcement or fanfare, departed the county he represents after he volunteered for a Captain’s Career Course with the New Mexico National Guard (NMNG) in Missouri. He returned this week, on June 5, very much like he left, out-of-sight of media or public view. The day he returned, Baca appointed Paul Montoya as his Undersheriff. Montoya worked for the department under Baca before, but left when his wife was injured in a car crash. Former Undersheriff Michael Apodaca resigned when a controversy erupted about the circumstances of Baca’s departure for the training. Baca received official orders (after volunteering for this course) to report to Fort Leonard Wood, MO for the six-month assignment. He left in December 2012, without notifying the county commission or the county manager. While the county pays Baca’s salary, he is elected by public ballot, and he said at the time he was not legally obligated to inform the commission of his plans. The controversy escalated when members of Baca’s own staff questioned his absence from the department, which Baca and Apodaca said would not disrupt everyday operations since there was daily contact through email, telephone and the Internet. When his absence was reported by the media, complaints from citizens begin to surface, and the commission appointed a former Sheriff, Charlie Cox, to fill the post until Baca’s return. Baca, on February 9, contacted the Sierra County Human Resources Department and requested that his pay be suspended until his return in June. He said any salary he received during his hiatus would be returned to the county. Baca’s annual salary is $51,277, with the county paying 85 percent of his insurance benefits. In addition, the county pays 18.50 percent of his retirement fund. The NMNG salary he received during the six months is $44,876, with the military also paying all of his expenses, including moving and travel costs, housing, meals and other incidentals. “If you are an elected public official and you are absent from your office for more than 30 days, you are deemed to have abandoned the office,” New Mexico Attorney General Gary King told KRQE-TV during the weeks of controversy. “But then there is an exception for military service, which I think is appropriate” King continued. “That law would say that you wouldn’t continue to get paid for your office while you are on military service. But when you come back, that you would be reinstated.” Baca, a former Afghanistan and Kuwait veteran with the National Guard, was elected Sheriff November 2, 2010. He was elected while serving in the NMNG and assured voters then it wouldn’t interfere with his duties as Sheriff. Baca’s family accompanied him during the Missouri assignment, and his children were enrolled in school there. Baca said Thursday he and family are now living in the Caballo/Arrey area. The department has 14 deputies (including Sheriff’s and Undersheriff’s positions), along with and an administrative secretary and information specialist. In a letter addressed to the citizens of the county Baca wrote: “I have been selected to attend the Active Component Captains Career Course in Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. This course is designed to prepare Captains for their first command. I am slated to take command of the 126th Military Police Company in August 2013. I fully understand my duties as the Sheriff and assure that I will remain making all the decisions for the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office. I am in direct contact with my Chief Deputy, Michael Apodaca, who is also available for any questions or concerns that any citizen may have. I am always available for any questions or concerns via my personal cell phone or email.” On Thursday Baca told the Sentinel he learned a lot during the law enforcement intensive training. “I received extensive training in incident command for any nuclear, chemical or biological attack,” he said. Baca said he is still studying for his Masters and will continue through online courses or by attending a local university.