The New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday ordered Grants Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks to comply with the state’s emergency public health orders after Attorney General Hector Balderas asked the high court to intervene.
The order comes just a day after Balderas asked the court to compel the mayor to obey the state’s pandemic-related restrictions on business operations after he directed city employees to return to work and encouraged business owners to flout the governor’s public health orders by reopening this week.
Balderas’ office filed the request Wednesday, arguing Hicks’ actions “endanger public health and require immediate actions by the court.”
In a written statement Thursday Balderas said, “Public officials must follow the law and employees should never be fired because they choose to follow laws protecting their health and safety during this public health emergency, particularly when they are near a region with one of the highest infection rates in the state.”
Without intervention from the state’s high court, “death and serious illness are likely to increase in Grants” and surrounding Cibola, McKinley and Bernalillo counties, as well as the Acoma
and Laguna pueblos, the court filing said.
Employees and businesses in the city are unsure of whether to follow public health orders from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration limiting gatherings and shutting down nonessential businesses, or whether they should listen to Hicks, the filing said, adding state law supersedes any directive from a local mayor.
Hicks declined to talk about the situation Thursday, saying, “I really can’t talk right now, I’m waiting for an attorney to call me back to fight Hector Balderas, so you have a great day, OK.”
Lujan Grisham has issued a series of public health orders since mid-March that limit gatherings to five people and require all businesses not deemed essential to public welfare to shut down to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The orders also require big-box stores and groceries that remain open to limit customer capacity and allow restaurants to operate takeout service only.
Hicks, a Democrat, has opposed the restrictions and announced last week he would begin reopening businesses Monday in his Western New Mexico city of 9,000 people.
In an interview last week, Hicks said, “The governor treats us like we’re stupid. We’re not stupid. We have common sense. We have responsibility. If Walmart, Walgreens and Smith’s can be open with social distancing, then so can everybody else.”
He challenged the governor to try to stop him from reopening the city. “If she wants to come and write me a ticket, come on down,” Hicks said, adding he would sue her in federal court if he were cited.
A few businesses opened Monday in Grants. A pawn shop owner said New Mexico State Police stopped by after she had closed and left a citation on her door.
Hicks fired Grants City Manager Laura Merrick Jaramillo after she told him that reopening the city-owned golf course this week could put staff at risk during the ongoing pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Hicks told the AP that firing Jaramillo was unrelated to their dispute.
The argument was cited in the attorney general’s filing as evidence that Grants city employees are now confronted with deciding between following state law and risking termination, or following Hicks’ “illegal orders” to keep their jobs.