Thursday’s mayoral dialogue took place in a building called the Forum, and perhaps that was appropriate. While the old Roman Forum saw its share of gladiatorial matches, it was better known as a marketplace and a hub for government life.
Instead of a bruising debate among five mayoral hopefuls hungry for support, an overflow crowd of around 250 Santa Feans saw a friendly exchange of ideas with minimal shoving and less controversy than the typical City Council meeting.
There are three sitting city councilors running for office, and each displayed a reasonable command of city policies, though Peter Ives, Joseph Maestas and Ron Trujillo had differing opinions about what’s working and what isn’t at City Hall.
Answering a question about the changes he’d make as the city’s first full-time mayor, Trujillo told the crowd that “as it is right now, government’s not working.” He promised he’d review every city department in his first 100 days, stressing input from city employees, and decide on changes from there.
A former mayor of Española from 2006-10, Maestas stressed the lessons he learned from his time as a chief executive. “Right now is not the time to hand the keys over to someone that doesn’t have experience,” he said, as close to a criticism of newcomers Alan Webber and Kate Noble as anyone came during the largely friendly exchange. Maestas also said he’d eliminate the relatively new position of deputy city manager and look to thin middle management at City Hall.
Ives played up his 34 years in Santa Fe and pointed to a number of city policies that are in the works and that would address many of the concerns raised Thursday, including a compensation and classification study that could realign city payroll, potentially saving money. He also highlighted the city’s existing efforts to address mental health crises, including the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and the Mobile Integrated Health Office that tries to solve persistent problems for the city’s most frequent 911 callers.
Both Webber and Noble positioned themselves as change candidates, with Webber using the word often and saying that a report by McHard Accounting Consulting that severely criticized the city’s financial controls is proof that existing city government isn’t working. The entrepreneur said his first step as mayor would be to take the report to heart and implement stronger oversight as well as building a contingency fund to protect against cutting city services in future financial downturns.
A current school board member and former TV journalist, Noble often turned to anecdotes to illustrate her points and try to connect with the crowd, saying too many of her opponents were buying into a “false dichotomy” that the city had to either concentrate on basic services or on economic development, workforce housing and other broader issues.
Held on the campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, which the city owns, the conversation saw all the candidates say they’d like to see education remain a component of the property after the for-profit school that’s leasing it closes in June. Webber, however, said the education should focus on the campus’ strength and the potential for digital and post-production film and television work. Maestas said the ultra-high-speed internet connection represented a huge asset for future development.
While almost every candidate asked the audience for their vote, none made an appeal for a second-place ranking in the March 6 election. While a court challenge by the city is pending action by the state Supreme Court, as it stands now, the balloting will be the first to use a ranked-choice system approved by voters in 2008.
Ranked-choice voting is designed to ensure a winner on election night, and also to give the winner a majority of the vote. The city’s rules in the past have said only a plurality of votes cast is needed to claim victory. Now, voters are asked to rank the candidates for an office. If no candidate gets a 50 percent-plus-one-vote majority, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated and all ballots are recounted using the second choices of that candidate’s voters. The process continues until there’s a winner.
After a drawing last month, Ives will be the first name on the mayoral ballot. He’ll be followed by Webber, Noble, Maestas and Trujillo. The District 4 councilman, who’s been a declared candidate for months, drew laughs from the crowd when he joked that “I’m number five on the ballot, but number one in your heart.”
Early voting begins Jan. 30 and the last day to register to vote is Feb. 6.