I’ve complained a lot in private conversations, as far back as I can remember, about the political climate in Santa Fe, and how it seems to favor a minority of wealthy, retired, white transplants that hide in the hills above downtown. But I could never put my finger on why I got that sense—I always attributed it to my adolescent discontentment and never bothered looking into how this city is run. I guess you could say I didn’t really care.
My buddy Corbin moved back a couple of weeks ago. Last week, he invited me to a meeting organized by a new group called Santa Fe Next, where he was hoping to "get a finger on the political pulse of this town, if I'm going to be living here now." A novel idea, I thought, and tagged along. It was an educational evening.
Santa Fe Next is an attempt to organize a grassroots base of progressive political power to counter some of the more entrenched power bases in local politics. The meeting was an opportunity for people who have been directly involved in the city government to share, with those who were interested, how the process works and why the city's political landscape looks like it does. The biggest take-away for me was that it works that way because most of us don't care to change it.
Damian Taggart, member of the Business and Quality of Life Committee, explained something that would be hilarious if only it weren't true: "There's just not a culture of actually using data or really understanding the value of data in our city government right now. [For instance], the business licensing process is an opportunity for the government to take in a whole bunch of interesting economic data. What they are doing is just taking this information on paper forms and putting it into a filing cabinet somewhere."
The city does, however, listen to people and groups who show up in person at City Council meetings. The decisions that affect all of our day-to-day lives are heavily influenced by those who take the time to show up and physically voice their support for or opposition to an issue. And more often than not, it's opposition. One of the biggest issues that will determine the future of this city, both economically and demographically, is housing. And one of the loudest voices in Santa Fe on that issue is the Santa Fe Neighborhood Network, an umbrella group for neighborhood associations that tends to come out against any development that isn't limited to the Southside of town (most recently exemplified in the failed El Rio development earlier this year).
As Daniel Werwath, who has been involved in affordable housing development in Santa Fe for over a decade, explained, "What we've arrived at as a culmination of years of this type of development are some pretty striking demographic changes: segregation of low-income people, young people and people of color. There are a very engaged group of people who show up at meetings and have very specific ideologies about growth. There's a huge momentum behind them; one of the most active people was a city councilor for many years and actually built systems that empowered neighborhood associations in the political process, and created a disproportionate representation. So in all these hearings where we've seen projects shut down, there's never been a voice in the room for the hypothetical beneficiaries of that housing."
This seems to be the kind of thing Santa Fe Next is out to change. Did you know three out of the four open council seats are uncontested? Neither did I. Because I didn't care. But maybe it's time to start paying attention.
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