In 1987, the Santa Fe City Council voted to eradicate Hacky Sacks in the Plaza. Twelve years later, the council decided to re-examine the restriction. Before voting to amend the ordinance banning Hacky Sacks, the meeting was opened to public comment. Seven citizens said they supported allowing Hacky Sack playing on the Plaza. No one spoke against it.
The councilors, however, spoke against one another. They moved amendments, amendments and more amendments, some of which lived, and some of which died for lack of agreement. Then-Councilor Jimmie Martinez said he was concerned that the Hacky Sackers would injure passersby, would cause bench-sitters to cower in fear over flying objects and that there were acres of parks elsewhere in which Hacky Sackers could play.
In the end, the council voted to allow Hacky Sacks on the Plaza, but just barely. Four councilors voted in favor; three voted against. Had one councilor switched sides, the Plaza today might be short a few bored 15-year-olds.
For at least seven years, the Hacky Sack debate exemplified the council’s modus operandi. While there was plenty of harmony on some issues, it took but the smallest dissent to break consensus.
But reviewing the past 10 years of council votes shows that, in 2006, the dynamic began to shift. SFR looked at one regular council meeting per month over the last decade to track the body's voting habits. The minutes show that, in 2005, as per the six years prior, the council was largely a house divided. That year, from the sample taken, there were at least two votes cast against items 35 times. In 2006, it happened eight times.
Infrequency of divergent factions remains today. This year, according to the sample, the council has differed only eight times so far.
Ask four councilors why they seem to get along better, and you’ll get a baker’s dozen of opinions, from the sanguine to the jaundiced.
“I think it’s because we vet and work out things as much as possible during the committee meetings,” District 1 Councilor Chris Calvert says. “And, quite honestly, it might have to do with the different makeup of council over time. Sometimes, you get council composition and they just want to do battle. It doesn’t make any difference sometimes; one person would say black and the other would say white because that’s just how they’re going to be.”
District 4 Councilor Matt Ortiz, however, believes "there's been a personal reconciliation of sorts. When I started [council], [Miguel Chavez'] daughter was 7 or 8 and, now, she's graduating high school. My daughter was 3 and, now, she's 13. You can't work that long with someone and maintain that hardness."
Calvert and Ortiz' analyses are mostly sanguine, and don't address why the relatively conciliatory attitude coincides with the election of Mayor David Coss.
To District 2 Councilor Rebecca Wurzberger, Coss' election is unrelated to current council dynamics, but connected to the three councilors elected from Districts 1, 3 and 4 who began the same year as Coss: Chris Calvert, Carmichael Dominguez and Ronald Trujillo.
“It’s just different personalities,” Wurzburger says. “You have that in business, in marriage, in government. New people create a new dynamic and, in the beginning, they’re more willing to work together.”
According to the voting records, not quite. Even in 2002, when Councilors Frank Montaño, Cris Moore and Jimmie Martinez were replaced by then Councilor Coss, Wurzberger and David Pfeffer, respectively, voting patterns didn't change significantly. That year, from the sample, at least two people voted against items 26 times. And after 2006, with the administrative sea changes, the harmony between councilors—at least as far as their voting—wasn't confined to a brief honeymoon phase: Council still, for the most part, gets along.
Go along to get along, District 1 Councilor Patti Bushee says. Over her 16 years on council, Bushee has built a reputation as a frequent dissenter—and, today, as a lone dissenter. She is by far the most likely council person to vote against a bill: This year, according to the sample taken by SFR, she voted against bills 12 times, more than double the second-biggest opposition voter, Chavez.
“Last night, it was like, ‘I want to expedite this studio in the Railyard,’” Bushee says, referring to an Oct. 27 vote on a height variance for a proposed post-production film facility. “And that’s fine, but the process of how it was done really flabbergasted me. They decided the mayor wanted it expedited.”
Former District 2 Councilor Karen Heldmeyer, a frequent dissenter until her departure in 2008, shares the view that the council’s relative equanimity is rooted in complacency.
"I think that what's happened is, part one, various councilors have been allowed to carve out certain spheres of influence [and] they are really directing city policy, without a vote, without a resolution," she says. "'This is your area, and you make the decision,' and as long as there's a balance of power, they've all agreed that they're not going to interfere in area A as long as they have area B."
That's part one. Part two, she says, is that the council doesn't air its dirty laundry in public and keeps its qualms behind closed doors.
"The no-news-is-good-news philosophy," she says. "As long as there's an appearance that everyone is getting along, then these issues don't make the papers, and the public has a lot on their plate and isn't going to pay attention to them unless it directly affects them."
She’s also the only person interviewed who directly attributes the lack of dissent—or the growth or harmony, depending on perspective—directly to Coss, who, she says, “made [complacency] worse. I think he was sort of heading in that direction before he was elected, but I think he’s someone who basically wants as many as possible to like him.”
Aside from the sudden closing of the voting chasm after Coss took office, a 2008 charter amendment might provide further indication to the growing influence of the mayor's office in council. The amendment, passed by voters in that year's municipal election, allows the mayor, when a city councilor is absent, to cast the fifth vote required for ordinances to become law. Prior to the amendment, the mayor could only vote in the case of a tie.
For his part, Coss doesn’t credit his administration for council’s current lack of notable schisms. After thinking about it for a few seconds, he instead cites controversial issues of past councils—the water budget, the Super Wal-Mart, the affordable living ordinance—as ones that contributed to frequent split votes and public division.
Other than that, Coss says, "I never thought about it that way."