With this series, The Independent wants to create a spotlight on important community leaders the small towns and cities we cover, including, as this week, a young up-and-coming leader. Is there somebody you think would be a good candidate for this series? Let us know! It could be an elected official, someone who works in local government, a pastor, or another young person. Contact me at news.ind.pohl@gmail.com with suggestions.

In this profile I spoke with Torrance County’s new Manager, Janice Barela. Janice went from being a stay-at-home mom to running an entire county, but it took a while to get there. Janice let me in on a lot of the struggles in her personal life, but also what made those struggles all worth it. Keep reading for her story.

The Independent: So starting off, where are you from?

Janice: Originally, is that what you mean? I came by way a couple of places. I was actually born in New Jersey. My dad, that’s where his family is from. My dad was born in Puerto Rico and he relocated when he was 12 years old to New York, and that was a culture shock for him because of how cold New York was in comparison to Puerto Rico. Also, not knowing anything any English at that time. But he ended up joining the military and he was in the Air Force, and then he ended up being stationed in Clovis at Cannon Air Force base, and that’s where he met my mom. They got married and from there they ended up, he got out of the military and went back to spend time and be with his family. At that time, they had relocated to New Jersey and that’s where I was born. Whenever I was eight years old, my mom said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m moving back to New Mexico; I can’t take New Jersey.” She was only 16 years old when they got married, and so it was a big move for her at 16 years old. Back then, I’m sure it was huge culture shock for her to go from Clovis to New Jersey. She decided she wanted to move back with her family, and then so I grew up from eight years old on in Clovis.

Do you have any memories of living in New Jersey?

I do. My favorite one, and maybe this is just a contrast of when I moved to New Mexico from the perspective of an 8-year-old. It took two days of driving for us to get from New Jersey to New Mexico, and I remember for the first time seeing the yellow and the red as far as things we take for granted now, in the rocks as you’re cutting through. I’d never seen anything like it before. The ground was a dark, dark brown dirt. As kids, we played outside a lot, and for example one of our things that we would do is to get into a handstand and walk on our hands. When we came over here to Clovis, we tried our best to get into a handstand and couldn’t do it because of the difference in altitude, it required a different amount of exertion to get up into handstand. We couldn’t get our legs up all the way into the position with the same amount that we were accustomed to. We would fall down on the ground just laughing and laughing because it was hilarious to us that we couldn’t get into a handstand.

Do you have any nicknames?

I haven’t. Very few people will call me Jan. Other than that, everyone calls me Janice. I think probably, I never thought I would be excited to be called somebody’s mother. Whenever my oldest went to school, I was called Jonathan’s mom and that was an exciting thing for me because that’s kind of a nickname when you think about it. Then you have the endearing names like “grandmother” and my grandkids call me “Nani.” That’s something that I enjoy as a name. But as far as nicknames growing up or anything like that, I didn’t have that. I think it’s probably because I have a very mean personality, if anybody would have tried that I probably would have really just handled that in a not so appropriate way, but effective at the same time.

What kind of activities did you like to do as a kid?

As a kid I actually was not a tomboy. I liked dresses, I liked dolls. I liked Barbies and all that kind of thing. My sister was the tomboy, and we grew up in New Jersey in particular, and my uncle, my dad’s brother, his family and our family were very close to the point that we were like brothers and sisters. That’s how we were raised, and so together we could make a baseball team or any team that we wanted because there were quite a few together. They were always trying to get me to go outside and play ball with them, and I didn’t have an interest in that. We used to play hide and seek, kick the can. I kind of played those games, but I preferred to stay inside and play with my dolls, and be the one that was dressed up, not in jeans and out there playing. Whenever we moved to Clovis, my sister, she’s one year older than I am in school. I was about to hit middle school and she says, “Janice you should go out for volleyball.” I’m looking at her like she’s nuts, I’m not going out for volleyball. That is not something I have an interest in. She just bugged and bugged and bugged, and I said, “Fine. If I do this, will you leave me alone?” She said yes, so I tried out for the volleyball team, and I was only seventh grader to make the eighth-grade volleyball team. I really enjoyed volleyball, and then basketball rolled around, and my sister says, “Janice, I want you to go out for basketball.” I didn’t want to go out for basketball, I have no interest in it, and we went through the same thing, and finally I said, “Fine, leave me alone.” I tried out, and I was the only seventh grader to make the eighth-grade team. From then on, I just loved athletics. I was thankful that I gave that an opportunity even though that wasn’t who I was growing up, and it wasn’t my personality to be playing ball, or to do any of this stuff because it helped me to have stability in my life at a time that I went through some rough times growing up that made it more difficult. Had I not had that stability and that teamwork, and then the coaches and a schedule and all that, it would’ve been difficult.

Did you continue these activities through high school?

I did. I went on and played in high school. I started every game I ever played, and I played in the North-South All-Star basketball game as well. I was offered scholarships to play volleyball and basketball in college, but my goal was to become a pharmacist. I attended the college of pharmacy at UNM under an academic scholarship instead of an athletic one, and that was a decision that I made because I was looking long-term at what I wanted to do career-wise, and I didn’t see where playing athletics in the colleges that offered me the scholarships would lead me to that. At that point UNM was the only college in New Mexico that offered a pathway to get a degree in pharmacy.

My next question was actually about what you did after high school, but you already answered that, so did you continue with pharmacy school or did something change along the way?

A lot changed along the way. I completed one semester of college, and then with the dynamic that I had in my household, growing up my parents didn’t get along very well. My dad was an alcoholic, he was a functioning alcoholic, which meant he would work, but he was drunk anytime outside of that. My mom was a somewhat functioning clinically depressed person, so she was either at work or she was passed out asleep kind of thing when she got home. They didn’t have obviously the best relationships and they were, in my opinion, checked out of life so we raised ourselves. In that process, there were four of us growing up, I had a sister and two brothers. I had always purposed that I knew what kind of family I wanted to have, and that was such a huge priority in my life that that was my main goal over education. So, when I met my husband, that was something that was so incredible to have somebody that I saw that vision with and so I went after that instead of the education. I dropped out of college and we started our family. We were young when it happened. When we got married, I was 19, and he was just one week short of being 19. We started our family and I had our first baby when I was 20 years old and every two years after that we planned and have three kids. It’s exciting now because we did it at such a young age, that we’re able to appreciate our time together. When they all left, we were still young enough to be able to do things. Then now to be young grandparents is pretty cool because we have six grandkids, so we’re excited about that part of it.

Of course, I was excited also when all of my kids passed the age of 19 and were not married. It’s like, you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s neat when they have the opportunity to get to know themselves better before they enter into a commitment like marriage. I wouldn’t trade what I did for anything, but I still know that I took the hard road in a lot of ways. You try to make it better for your own kids than what you had, and hopefully that’s something I was able to accomplish. But, having had struggles with childhood and issues then, I knew I wanted more than that for my kids.

How did you end up in your current job?

When we started having kids, I became a stay-at-home mom. I stayed home for 10 years as we raised our kids because I wanted to be the one to influence and impact my kids to able to implement and pass on as much as I could to become the people that I wanted them to become, and I’m proud of all of them. But we did that on a shoestring budget because my husband at that time worked at the sod farm in McIntosh. He was bringing in like five dollars an hour back then, and we were making a lot of sacrifices to be able to make that work. I remember being concerned about spending a quarter if I went to a yard sale because I could use that towards bread or towards milk. I know what it’s like to be in that situation of not having, but still being able to provide the best that you can for your family.

But when my kids went to school, I went to work at that point and I became a teacher, what they call a supervisor at a private Christian school, and I taught for five years, and that was in Mountainair. After that we decided to pull our kids into the public schools in Estancia. At that that point I went to work as an administrative assistant at a middle school, and then moved up to be the administrative assistant at Estancia High School from there, even though I don’t have the education a lot of people normally would have in positions that I have. I had graduated in the top 10% of my class in Clovis with over 450 students. I had academic scholarships, all of this, and so I have the ability to learn. I was teaching myself everything I need to know in order to be successful on the jobs that I would get. I loved math; math was always something I was good at. Math and science, which led me into the pharmacy world and that’s what I was planning on doing.

But what I ended up doing was: I knew that there was a position available as a deputy treasurer for the county, and I knew that county treasurer so I went to her and I said, “I heard that you’re possibly looking for somebody in this position. I would be willing to come in. I don’t have experience that you’re needing, but I love math and I would love to have the opportunity to see if I love business math,” because I never took business math. Mine was always geared towards a different type of math. She said, “Okay, let’s give it a try,” and I just flew in into that position and I loved it. I loved the county work, I loved everything we did in our office. I worked for her for six and a half years and she retired. Then after she retired, the commissioners appointed me to take over and finish out her term as treasurer. I had a year and a half to do that work and I made a lot of changes. She was very old school, so I was doing what could be done in a spreadsheet in Excel, I was doing manually. I look back at that and I laughed, buy at the same time it gives the foundational learning of everything.

I was all set to be run for the position and work towards that. It was my goal to run as the county treasurer at the next election, and it turns out now that my plans were changed because my husband in the same time that I got the appointment for treasurer, he was appointed to be a state senator. That was something that we didn’t anticipate happening. We started getting phone calls, and he got to the place where people were encouraging him to submit his name to the county commission for consideration for them to select him as their nominee going into this. Torrance County did vote to put his name forward to the governor. That district covers six different counties including Torrance County and so every district the commission had to put forward a name to the governor and she ended up selecting my husband Ted. He had previously served as the town trustee for Estancia for 10 years and five years as the town Mayor. I was excited when he retired because when he retired from the DOT he had to stop his service with the town, and I thought, “We’re done with politics, we’re finished,” and then the next thing you know here this comes. When he retired, they put the bug in his ear trying to get him to run for House of Representatives, and I told him. “No absolutely not. I supported you all these years, you know that I’m lined up to be on the ballot to run for treasurer, we can’t be on the ballot at the same time, that is not okay.” Because they run every two years so we would automatically will be on the same ballot. He said, “Okay, you’re right, I won’t do it.” But now here presents this opportunity for the Senate and I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh.” He asks me, “What do you want me to do? Should I try or not, because that would put us on the ballot at the same time.” Senate is for four years and treasurer is for four years, and their terms align, so they would be on the ballot at the same time. I told him, “Just go ahead and try it. I think it would be a great opportunity, and we’ll deal with it if the time comes.” In my mind I thought what is the chances that he’ll be appointed as Senator? I wasn’t really thinking that was going to happen. Then when it did, it was pretty cool, and a great opportunity, and it was an amazing experience for him and for me.

Now fast forward to when it was time for me to declare candidacy, I asked my deputy treasurer if she would run instead because I’m still in the same place where I don’t want to be on the ballot at the same time. I just don’t think that’s right, and I know other couples that have done things like that, but for me I didn’t feel like that was right. He got mad at me and he said, “No, if I’d have known that I wouldn’t have done this.” I said, “No, this is my decision I can serve the community and the county as the deputy just as much as the treasurer, it doesn’t matter. This is a great opportunity, you’re making a difference as a Senator, let’s give it our best shot.” He missed out on winning his election by 1% of the vote, it was really close, and I went in to be the deputy under the current treasurer. I worked there and then when the opportunity came for the deputy county manager opening that was there, I thought I’d check and see, I could be interested in this position. So, I visited with the county manager at the time and we had a good visit because there were certain things that I was concerned about, and I wanted to make sure our visions aligned, because I didn’t want to work for somebody or an administration or something where I would be more of a hindrance to them than a help, because if we don’t match up then I don’t want to be the reason that they’re not able to do and move forward with what they wanted to do. I made sure that we were aligned before I put in for the position, and it did. Then I was awarded that position. My contract started February 1 of this year and then in June, [the county manager] let me know that he’s moving to become the Sandoval County Manager. His last day was July 26 and my first day as interim county manager was July 27. I ran the county under that authority for quite a while, it seemed like forever, before they finally went to interviews and made the decision and offered me the contract. September 26 was my first day as officially the County Manager. I’m excited, and I was the only one out of all the applicants that did not have a college degree. I know that that’s an area that is important, I’m not taking away from people’s education, that’s a lot of hard work and time that goes into getting those degrees, but I was appreciative that they took into consideration the hard work and time that I put in to my work experience as well.

What’s your favorite thing about working as County Manager and what motivates you to work hard?

That’s easy. My favorite thing is people. Today I hired a new Deputy County Manager, his name is Philip. This was his first week here, and so I didn’t get the opportunity on Monday to take him around and introduce him to everybody, but I finally took the time this morning to do that. As I did, for as long as I’ve worked here, I got to know all the employees. I’ve seen them through all their downs and highs and all that, and all the different things that has happened in the county. I was able to express to him the valuable people that they are. As I went to introduce him to each person, I can give personal stories and tell you exactly what their job is, and how they bring value to the county, to the public service that we provide for our constituents, and everybody in the county and how instrumental they are as a valuable members of our team to accomplish these services. I could do that because I’ve worked for so long, and because I have been in this community for 35 years. Looking at it from that perspective, it was so cool to validate every single employee that we had for the work that they do, and what they bring every day to their job here. Whenever we were finished and came back into my office with the Deputy County Manager, he said it was really cool. This is what it means to me to be in this leadership role, is that I know I have a great team that I work with every single day, and I love coming to work and being able to do everything I can to support them. I guess for me it’s knowing not only that I care about all the people in our county, but now I’m actually in a position of influence to actually make a difference in their lives, and in the level of service I’m able to provide.

Moving on, this is more of just a quick answer round. What is your favorite TV show?

I don’t know. That’s a question that I don’t know that I have an answer for. I like “Shark Tank.” That’s one of those that I like watching, but I don’t usually have a specific thing I watch. But when I do, it’s “Shark Tank.” I like hearing about the business aspects of things.

What is your favorite movie favorite?

My all-time favorite movie is “Return to Me.”

Who is your favorite musical artist?

You’re asking me questions that when I was younger, I could have just spit those out. I think it would be Koryn Hawthorne, she’s a Christian artist.

If you watch sports do you have a favorite sport or team?

I do. This creates more battles in my home than anything. It is football and I am a New York Giants fan. All the rest of my family, literally, are all Dallas Cowboys fans. But my personality is I always cheered against Dallas just because I’m mean, and I decided I needed to pick a team, so I picked the Giants since their Stadium is in New Jersey.

What is your favorite food and where is your favorite place to eat out?

My favorite food is barbecue and my favorite place to eat out would be Rudy’s.

Do you have a favorite hobby?

Back when I wasn’t so busy, I liked to work out. I’m trying to get back into my routine, but the weather’s not helping me because I like to run. That’s one thing, and then I like to read, and I also like to crochet which is a little different. I crochet afghans for my grandkids, and babies that are born, that kind of thing.

Switching gears again, these are just random questions that I like to ask people because I think they’re fun. What is your worst fear?

My worst fear I think would be snakes. I don’t like snakes. But other than that, I don’t think I have any fears. I probably would never bungee jump, so that’s one thing I don’t think I’ll do. Other than that, everything else I have no fear of. But I don’t like snakes.

If you could time travel to any period in time where would you go?

I’ve thought about that before. I think I would go back and actually visit my great-grandmother. I have a picture of her, she lived in Texas. I have a picture of her standing over all of the family, and she had her hand out, like praying a blessing over the family. I just thought she would be an interesting person to know and to learn more about.

What makes you laugh the most?

Oh my goodness, probably my husband. He has a sense of humor that he always comes up with something and says something, and for as serious of a childhood that I grew up in, I didn’t have a lot of laughter in my life, at all. Everything was very serious and so for him to bring that light heartedness to me in my life was important, and he still does that. I can still become a very serious person and he brings that laughter in my life.

Do you have a go to karaoke song?

I do not. I know other people in my family that do, but I don’t have one. I love to sing, but now, I don’t.

If you were a superhero, what superpower would you have?

If I were a superhero, I think I would like to have the power of healing hearts. I don’t know, I’ve never heard anybody say that, but I think there’s a lot of broken hearts and I think I’d like to have a superpower of knowing that a heart is broken and be able to heal it.

I have only one more question for you. If you passed away tomorrow, how would you want people to remember you?

That is a good question. I would want people to remember me as the person that cares about the community, and that lived my values, not just set them. That I didn’t just state my values, but I was actually a person that lived out those values for my kids are my grandkids to see, and then I passed on those values to them. That I’m a woman of my word, that I made commitment to honor, cherish and love my husband and we now have 35 years of marriage, and so I upheld my commitment. That I’m a person that when I take on a job, a project, whether it’s in the community, in my community service, or it’s at my work, that I gave it my best. That I didn’t just get by the on the skin of my teeth, but I actually put my best into everything that I did. Probably that family, and the community people are really what matters the most. I can do a job and we can have all these things but if you don’t care about the people that doesn’t really.

Felecia Pohl
Felecia Pohl