- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A newly appointed sheriff in a troubled northern New Mexico county is promising to reform his office after his predecessor was convicted last week in a civil rights case.

But Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan faces challenges in winning over supporters of former Sheriff Thomas Rodella, patrolling a 5,800-square-mile area overrun by drug trafficking and managing an office that historically has had limited resources in one of the poorest places in the nation.

Last week, Rodella, who is member of one of the region’s most politically influential families, was convicted of brandishing a firearm and deprivation of rights during a traffic stop. He was ousted from office Thursday by county commissioners after he refused to resign while in federal custody. Commissioners then appointed Lujan to fill the remainder of Rodella’s term this year.

Lujan defeated Rodella in a June Democratic primary by 200 votes. He faces no challenger in the November general election.

After his appointment, Lujan told the Santa Fe New Mexican his immediate goal was to change the image of the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office. He vowed to revamp the office’s dress code, which allowed deputies to wear jeans and T-shirts while on duty.

“I need to meet with the deputies I haven’t talked to yet, and let them know what I expect of them,” he said.

Lujan also took a reformist tone on the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office website and posted that he will make sure public resources are used correctly.

“Sheriff Lujan will work diligently to restore the public’s faith in the ability of the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, ensuring integrity, honesty and leadership are incorporated in the everyday execution and enforcement of the office by both he and his deputies,” the website said.

But Lujan has his own legal problems. In 2001, he was charged with multiple counts of tax fraud and later pleaded no contest. He completed two years of unsupervised probation, and the conviction was later tossed.

Steve Martinez, an assistant history professor at Santa Fe Community College, said winning over longtime Rodella supporters, the former sheriff is married to longtime Espanola Democratic state Rep. Debbie Rodella, will be one of many obstacles Lujan will have to overcome in the coming days. Lujan also will have to manage an office that lacks updated law enforcement technology and work to recruit deputies for a department that can’t pay them as well as nearby agencies, Martinez said.

“He will have his hands full,” said Martinez, who lives in Espanola. “This won’t be a walk in the park.”

Meanwhile, the county is battling a heroin epidemic and a struggling economy. Around 20 percent of residents live below the poverty level, U.S. Census records show.

Espanola, the largest city in the county with a population of around 10,000, has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, according to FBI statistics. In addition, the city saw 42.5 drug-related deaths per 100,000 residents in 2009, the most recent statistics available. It’s a rate that ranks among the top nationwide.

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Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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