PAHRUMP -- Nye County commissioners voted unanimously Friday to reprimand Assessor Shirley Matson for embarrassing the county with a racially charged email and other comments questioning the citizenship of workers building a new county jail.
Matson on March 11 emailed Sheriff Tony DeMeo to request an investigation of the workers' citizenship or work visa status, writing 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 the first of many between Matson and the sheriff, who told Matson her comments were blatantly racist and her request unconstitutional. Matson later denied asking for an investigation, though her email clearly does so.
In a special meeting called by the commissioners, Matson and her attorney, Nancy Lord, said 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 of the audience and applause from the other half.
Though the five commissioners agreed Matson violated the county's personal conduct policy, Matson is an elected official and they can do little more than issue a public reprimand that carries no penalty.
Commissioner Joni Eastley said the controversy cast Nye County in a bad light and did real damage.
'We don't tolerate racists'
"Your racially charged and insensitive comments were wholly inappropriate and volatile and they were sent under the seal of Nye County," said the longtime commissioner from Tonopah. "Your subsequent statements have served to distract citizens from the real problems of illegal immigration because the focus has shifted. We don't tolerate racists."
Dan Schinhofen, one of three commissioners from Pahrump, said he is as concerned as anyone over illegal immigration, but disagrees with Matson's take. He asked Matson whether she could see how her statements might be construed as racially insensitive.
She said it never dawned on her that they might be.
Schinhofen then said her 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."
Schinhofen also managed to sum up the divided feelings of residents in this town 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"People are very passionate about this. They either see you as some kind of hero or want you run out of town on a rail ... but your comments look racist and that looks bad for the county."
After the meeting Lord said Matson, a relative newcomer to the rural county, had been "railroaded."
"This was about the fact she is not part of the club," said Lord. "She'll get re-elected. This was just a railroad, it's meaningless. It's just their opinion. Who cares?"
During the meeting, Eastley noted that neither the commissioners nor DeMeo have received a single complaint from the public regarding the workers, and pressed Matson to specify the number and nature of complaints she says she is receiving.
Matson named only one person -- Ben Gully, a retiree who volunteers at the Sheriff's Office.
But Gully told the commissioners that while he has concerns about illegal immigration, he never complained to Matson or questioned the citizenship of the construction workers.
"I made no complaint at all," said Gully, explaining that he spoke with Matson on March 11 after ''Mrs. Matson flagged me down (and asked) why were all the Mexicans working over there."
Gully said Matson told him about her own negative experiences with alleged illegal immigrants when she lived in San Diego, and boasted about her anti-illegal immigration background.
"She said she was a Tea Party Minuteman," said Gully. "She was excited."
Former Assessor Sandy Musselman said after the hearing that none of her employees complained to her while she was in office and that they've told her they never complained to Matson either.
"We had Hispanic workers working near us for the 12 years I was assessor, and for the 26 years I worked in the assessor's office and we never had a complaint in all that time," said Musselman. "She's delusional."
Matson outlined her experiences in San Diego in other emails broadly circulated in Nye County before last fall's election. In those messages, which resurfaced last week adding fuel to the fire, she calls illegal immigrants locusts that devour the nation's resources, says pregnant Latinas are the nation's "greatest enemies" and says "other things the dirty filthy Mexican/Latino illegals do is steal Social Security numbers."
Matson: Attempt to protect county
Matson said Friday that her email to DeMeo had nothing to do with the issue of illegal immigrants, but was an attempt to protect the county. She recounted once working for a San Diego construction company that was fined "millions of dollars" for hiring illegal immigrants.
"I wanted to save the county embarrassment," she said.
That drew a tongue-in-cheek response from Commissioner Lorinda Wichman, who represents Round Mountain.
"I want to thank you for avoiding embarrassment to Nye County," said Wichman, winning applause from the audience.
Commission Chairman Gary Hollis told Matson she should have called Immigration and Custom 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 was elected to a four-year term in November. By law, she cannot be recalled until she has been in office for at least six months. Pahrump resident Stephanie Lopez has that date circled on her calendar. In a message to the Review-Journal, she said she intends to mount a recall campaign in July.