Commissioners in central Nevada's Nye County have voted unanimously to reprimand the county assessor, after she sent emails to the sheriff questioning the citizenship of workers building a new county jail.
Assessor Shirley Matson asked for an investigation of the workers' citizenship or work visa status in a March 11 email to Sheriff Tony DeMeo, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
She wrote that her staff and the public "can plainly see that the construction employees are all Mexican/Latino non-English speaking and I'm getting complaints."
That email was among many between Matson and the sheriff, sent after Matson was elected to a four-year term in November. The sheriff told Matson her remarks were blatantly racist and her request was unconstitutional.
County commissioners agreed in a special meeting Friday that Matson violated the county's personal conduct policy. But they determined they could do little more than issue a public reprimand because she's an elected official.
Commissioner Dan Schinhofen said Matson's apparent viewpoint is: "They look Hispanic, so they must be illegal. Do you see where that could be seen as a bigoted statement? It's bigoted to me."
Matson told commissioners it never dawned on her that her statements might be construed as racially insensitive. She said her email to DeMeo had nothing to do with the issue of illegal immigrants, but was an attempt to protect the county. She recounted working for a San Diego construction company that was fined millions of dollars for hiring illegal immigrants.
"I wanted to save the county embarrassment," Matson said.
That prompted a tongue-in-cheek response from Commissioner Lorinda Wichman. "I want to thank you for avoiding embarrassment to Nye County," Wichman quipped.
Commission Chairman Gary Hollis said Matson should have called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if she was concerned, not the sheriff. "I don't see where the sheriff can go around asking people to `show me your papers,'" Hollis said.
Matson and her attorney, Nancy Lord, said at Friday's meeting they think DeMeo should be found in violation of county policy for releasing Matson's email to the media.
"Maybe you have the wrong person sitting here," Lord said, eliciting groans from half the audience and applause from the other half.
Commissioner Joni Eastley noted that neither the commissioners nor DeMeo have received a single complaint from the public about the workers. She pressed Matson to specify the number and nature of complaints she has received.
Matson named only one person: Ben Gully, a retiree who volunteers at the sheriff's office.
While he has concerns about illegal immigration, Gully said he never complained to Matson or questioned the citizenship of the construction workers.
"Mrs. Matson flagged me down (and asked) why were all the Mexicans working over there," he told commissioners.
Stephanie Lopez of Pahrump told the Review-Journal she intends to launch a recall drive against Matson in July. By law, Matson cannot be recalled until she has been in office at least six months.
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com