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NMSU Helps County Governments Train Public Officials

ALBUQUERQUE - Oscar Vasquez Butler, vice chairman of the Doņa Ana County Commission, said he could have avoided some mistakes when he took office 18 months ago if he'd received training in media relations.

County College, a partnership of the New Mexico Association of Counties and New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, will help county officials statewide develop their public administration skills. County College will offer more than 65 hours of coursework in areas such as leadership, budget management and media relations, officials said Wednesday during a formal signing ceremony in Farmington. (06/15/2004) (Courtesy Photo from Jerry Downs)

"I come from an activist background, but as a public official I need to be careful with the kind of colorful or aggressive language I might use as a private citizen," Butler said. "I made some mistakes working with the media, and I've learned the hard way. Most new officials like me need training in public administration, but it hasn't been available."

To fill that need, New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service is partnering with the New Mexico Association of Counties to create a new County College. The college will train and certify local officials statewide in general aspects of public administration, including leadership skills, budget management and media relations.

Extension and the Association of Counties will sign a memorandum of understanding to launch the program June 16 in Farmington during the association's annual conference, said Paul Gutierrez, Extension director and associate dean of NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

"The County College will provide learning opportunities for local officials to develop the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs effectively," Gutierrez said. "We need to help local governments build expertise for the challenges they face."

Providing basic courses in public administration is essential, because the lack of educational opportunities forces many public officials to get on-the-job training, he said.

"There's no formal schooling to be a public official in New Mexico, yet these people face huge challenges that often require specialized training," Gutierrez said. "Our goal is to offer that formal training."

Elected officials are often unaware of the administrative burdens that await them, and once they take office they have nowhere to turn, said Rebecca Bustamante, Santa Fe County Clerk and outgoing president of the Association of Counties. "The reality of running for office and actually running an office are often very different," she said.

But even those who are already on the job and well trained in public administration can benefit from the County College, because officials work in a constantly changing environment, Bustamante said.

"Policies change, laws change and administrative conditions change, so we need to keep up," she said. "The college will help everybody stay informed."

The association already offers basic training in leadership skills through the Better Informed Public Officials program. But the college will greatly expand the program by providing a core curriculum in public administration, with at least 65 hours of coursework required for certification, Gutierrez said.

Courses will include management and leadership; technical skills in computer hardware and software; personnel issues such as fair labor standards, employment law and due process; financial skills in budget preparation and control, capital investment and debt management; and communications skills such as media relations and writing.

"The core curriculum aims to make officials more informed about decision making processes in their communities," Gutierrez said. "It will improve their understanding of issues and their ability to manage those issues."

The college will offer additional workshops in individual counties or regions to address specific needs, such as understanding water and health care issues.

Extension will hire a local government specialist to coordinate the program, Gutierrez said. The specialist will rely on local Extension offices to help assess county educational needs. Some courses could be offered through Extension offices using online distance education technology and video conferencing.

College graduates can earn continuing education units through NMSU. In addition, Extension will partner with other units, such as NMSU's College of Business Administration and Economics, to allow participants to use County College certificates as stepping stones to earn bachelor's degrees, Gutierrez said.

Samuel Montoya, executive director of the Association of Counties, said the memorandum of understanding will be signed in front of about 800 officials and association members from across the state.

"Many people are just waiting for the opportunity to take classes," Montoya said. "We've provided training in the past, but never in partnership with a higher education institution. It will allow all public officials, elected or appointed, to pursue their educations at a higher level with the promise of certification at the end of the road."

Given Extension's well-established presence around the state, the County College partnership seemed a natural fit, said Benito J. Martinez Jr., Santa Fe County Assessor and vice president of the Association of Counties.

"By working through Extension offices, the County College infrastructure is basically already in place," Martinez said. "The Extension network is such an enormous resource. We're thrilled about the learning opportunities this partnership will provide."