ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) — Its modest offices are empty. A sign taped crookedly on the door tells visitors — if there are any — that the office is closed. Its webpage is a generic placeholder advertisement. But New Mexico’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission is mounting a comeback.
At least, that’s the plan.
The commission recently hired Leonard Waites as its new executive director. A familiar and respected face in the Black community, Waites will earn $65,000 annually. At the moment, he is the sole employee of the commission.
In the months since the commission forced out former executive director Kimberly Greene and eliminated the jobs of a handful of support staff, its work furthering the message and non-violent principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has taken a back seat to the mundane task of paying overdue bills.
In January, investigators from the Office of the Attorney General carted off computers, hard drives and files from the commission’s offices at EXPO New Mexico. Search warrants revealed agents believed Greene may have paid herself $16,000 in state money using a MLK Commission contract with a non-profit reading-improvement company as cover. They also suspect she forged a $51,000 invoice for a youth conference. The investigation is ongoing.
The commission was so far behind in its accounting that the state Board of Finance agreed to an emergency infusion of cash to get it through the rest of the fiscal year, which ended in June.
“I think what we needed was this time to really look at what happened,” said Brad Winter, whose post as secretary of state means he has a seat on the commission. The body has created a finance subcommittee to better track the commission’s budget of several hundred thousand dollars.
But as the commission and its supporters have worked to keep it afloat, the community has missed the agency’s work. Sunday marks the 53rd anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the commission has no planned events.
Perhaps more importantly, the annual summer youth camp didn’t happen this year.
“All of these children learn how to get along together. They all bring different values, different cultures. But then they learn how those different cultures intermingle and work together so that they can achieve common goals,” said Pamelya Herndon, NAACP New Mexico First Vice President.
“It is missed. I think it’s missed primarily because of the children who don’t get to partake in it because of their economic status,” she said.
It will be the job of Waites, who did not return calls or emails from KRQE News 13, to get the commission’s programs running once more. The new executive director will begin hiring support staff in the coming months.
Getting lawmakers to fund a beleaguered commission still under investigation would be a heavy lift in any year. The state’s half-billion-dollar predicted shortfall only adds weight. But the commission is trying to avoid the squeeze by adding programs, not subtracting.
“We have a small budget with the state, but that shouldn’t be the only money. So we looked at how we can raise money,” said Winter.
The commission plans to start an annual indoor track meet as a fundraiser. Winter believes pairing the event with Martin Luther King Jr. Day could bring attention to King’s work and bring a reliable funding stream for what he hopes is a new chapter for the commission.
The meet is scheduled for January 14 next year and would be one of the first events of the indoor track season.