After months of investigations into allegations of malfeasance and irregularities by the elected county clerk, the Torrance County commission officially declared the office of county clerk vacant and appointed a familiar face to finish out the term.
During the January 11, 2023 meeting commissioners appointed former Torrance County Clerk Linda Jaramillo to finish Otero’s term, which ends in 2024.
The controversy began almost five weeks before the election when, on Sept. 28, the county commission voted to investigate Otero for allegations of malfeasance in office, along with allegations of drug use and other illegal activity, which were brought forward by county manager Janice Barela.
The county’s resolution notes that Otero had been censured Oct. 12 “for workplace misconduct and for neglecting her official duties as clerk.” The Independent has previously reported that an investigator hired by the county found evidence that substantiated allegations of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment. They also substantiated allegations of workplace violence due to Otero’s use of the Taser to wake up an employee in one instance. Otero admitted to regular cocaine use, though she denied using drugs in the office. Otero also pre-signed certifications of voting machines even though she was not present during the inspection process. The secretary of state later required the county to redo all of the election certifications and no irregularities were found. The Nov. 8 election was overseen by Chavez in her role as deputy clerk. The deputy is empowered to carry out any of the duties of the county clerk in her absence.
According to details from the investigation, the last time Otero used her key card to her office was in July, 2022, and that the last time her work computer was connected to the Torrance County network was February, 2022. The last time it registered as being turned on was September, 2022, and that a review of her cell phone “reveals minimal activity” since September, 2022. Likewise, the last date Otero was seen at the county office was Sept. 28, 2022, the resolution says.
Although elected officials cannot be fired like normal employees, state statute states that “an incumbent of any public office” is deemed to have “resigned from and to have permanently abandoned” the post if they don’t perform their duties for 30 consecutive days.
The vote to vacate the clerk’s office was heard during the commission’s Dec. 28 meeting. One of the commissioners, LeRoy Candelaria, had died less than a week before the meeting. The motion to approve the resolution was passed unanimously by the two remaining commissioners, Ryan Schwebach and Kevin McCall. Commissioners then voted to accept letters of interest from those interested in filling the position and received 11.
Jaramillo, a former county clerk, was selected and assumed office. She had spent 24 years in the Torrance County Clerk’s office, 16 of those years as clerk and the remaining eight years as deputy clerk. “I don’t want to go backwards, I want to go forward,” Jaramillo said when asked what her priorities would be in stepping back into the role amid the recent controversy. “We’ll do everything as it’s supposed to be, by the law, and bring back the integrity of that office. That’s it. I don’t have time to look backwards.”
For her part, Jaramillo said she has always been willing to answer questions from the public about the electoral process on the ways votes “are constantly being checked and balanced.” She said she wants to educate the public on the electoral process and “laws we follow for the protection of the vote,” adding, “That office will have an open door for anybody who wants to listen to me about elections.”