Just after taking over the top job in City Hall more than a year ago, Javier Gonzales rearranged the mayor’s office, clearing out the clutter of his predecessor, David Coss.
The redecoration reflects Gonzales' governing style: modern, minimalist and, in his own word, "collaborative." The desk, a smaller wooden piece, is now positioned in the corner, in front of the office's eastern-facing window. In the center, a couch and chair flank a coffee table, where aides converse facing each other in a living-room-style arrangement.
The new adornments reflect Gonzales' political priorities, too. On a recent Friday afternoon, the mayor points to an American flag on the north wall, an art project by the kids at Acequia Madre Middle School, who wrote their hopes and aspirations along its red and white stripes. Though City Hall doesn't have much authority over precollege education in Santa Fe—that's under the regulatory scope of the state and school board—Gonzales is investing political capital in after-the-bell initiatives aimed at improving children's success inside the classroom by building support systems outside of it.
"I dream of a world without war," reads one of the phrases marked onto the flag, a backdrop for the mayor's state-of-the-city address in February. "I hope that everyone has a home," says another.
"People have challenged me and asked, 'Why are you spending so much time focused on education when that's outside of the purview of what a mayor of city government does?'" Gonzales says. "My response has been, 'What matters to a child when they're not in a classroom is as important, if not more important, to the development of that child.'"
His Children, Youth and Families Community Cabinet, stacked with City Hall outsiders, is just one way Gonzales is making policy through being what he calls a "convenor."
"One of the leadership traits that I've tried to convey to voters—and since I've been in office—is that I believe in a collaborative approach when addressing some of our most complex challenges," Gonzales says. "I also believe that the city as a functioning government or an institution shouldn't be...solely responsible with addressing some of the challenges, many of the challenges, that we have in the town."
Gonzales is looking for support beyond government to tackle those challenges. To shape policy ideas, he convened extracurricular citizen committees like the youth cabinet. He's also leveraged the bully pulpit of the mayor's office to be Santa Fe's top booster. The city suddenly seems to be making its way on more listicles from national outlets touting its attractions. In December, he took a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, and met with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh about a downtown development project to support tech startups. And he looks further west, to places like Silicon Valley and Hollywood, to inject more energy into tech-startup, art and film industries in Santa Fe (in November, Gonzales became "Rider Zero" for the San Francisco ride-sharing giant Uber's launch in Santa Fe).
The tactic has drawn both praise for its ability to bring stakeholders together to solve Santa Fe's pressing issues and criticism that he's mainly speaking to his supporters.
Karen Heldmeyer, a former city councilor and a member of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, sees the ups and downs of Gonzales' governing style. "You need to get more than government involved in problems," Heldmeyer says, but she adds that it's "supposed to be open and transparent."
"Many of these nongovernmental groups have not been," she says.
A year is a relatively short period time to judge the progress Gonzales, who doesn't face re-election until 2018, is making. Yet his administration—already through one budget cycle and prepared for the next one, with most of its executive appointments made—is taking on a distinct face.
"Anyone new to an elected office can experience a learning curve, and I think that's what we've seen," says Joseph Maestas. The District 2 city councilor should know; he served as Española's mayor from 2006 to 2010.
"But the mayor's got a lot of talent, a lot of political talent," Maestas says, "and he is very, I think, adaptable."
Critics, though, say that in pointing his concentration outside City Hall, Gonzales, a former Santa Fe County Commissioner whose late father was also mayor of Santa Fe, is missing a chance to clean up an institution in need of more than just the basic administration-to-administration housekeeping.
Judy Klinger, a retired reference librarian who worked for the city for 34 years, knows how to do research. While volunteering for Bushee's campaign, she says, she became concerned about Gonzales' record on progressive issues.
"Many think of him as a 'progressive,'" Klinger says, "but I don't see that much has been accomplished in that regard so far, other than creating a climate task force. I would like to see fewer platitudes and more action."
It's hard to move a new agenda in the wake of something like the parks bond scandal—in which officials say they cannot account for all of about $30 million in voter-approved bond money that was supposed to be spent on improving Santa Fe parks. The ordeal is perhaps hampering implementation of Gonzales' more lofty goals.
In an interview inside his office, Gonzales says those priorities are the three Es: education, the environment and the economy.
Patti Bushee, perhaps Gonzales' most vocal critic on City Council and his toughest mayoral opponent during the 2014 municipal elections, tells SFR she's hopeful his administration will "pick up some steam" on some of the priorities it laid out in the first year. The administration is saying the right things to its campaign base, she says. Yet, the city still faces a budget mess.
"He's governing by press release," Bushee says of the mayor.
Here's an example of what she means:
At an April 29 City Council meeting, City Manager Brian Snyder (and, by extension, Gonzales) faced a grilling from Bushee. City councilors engaged in a heated debate over resolutions to finance an internal audit for the parks bond. An external auditor recently said there did not appear to be adequate records about how the money was spent.
"I think we need to re-earn the public's trust," Bushee said. Gonzales, eager to move the debate along, interjected, saying, "We are going to get to the bottom of this."
Even so, Gonzales inherited the scandal. The city manager and parks director who oversaw the bond spending were long gone from the government before he took office.
During the meeting, Gonzales' press handler, Matt Ross, sent a letter from the mayor addressed to the council that laid out his conversations about the parks bond issue with State Auditor Tim Keller and Attorney General Hector Balderas seeking intervention. Gonzales, a former chairman of the state's Democratic Party, sparked chatter within City Hall that bringing the issue to the attention of the state's top Democratic officeholders was a political calculation meant to stave off fallout from the scandal.
In the letter, though, Gonzales promises the type of accountability City Hall critics have been seeking.
"It's critical that we know exactly where the money was spent, as we cannot operate from a position where we, and most importantly, the public, are making judgments based only on rumor or inaccurate information," reads the April 29 letter.
This debate is happening at the same time as negotiations for the city's next budget. An upcoming change to the mayor's powers gives him the reins to develop a budget proposal, yet insiders say Gonzales was hands-off during his first budget cycle. During two daylong budget hearings this spring, where the Finance Committee grilled department heads and the city manager, the mayor was present for just a few hours. While councilors were talking about the water company's massive surplus on the afternoon of April 30, for example, Gonzales' calendar shows he was judging the "Bed Making Race" for Santa Fe Tourism Day at the convention center.
Back in the council chambers, Councilor Maestas argues that the city is kicking the budgetary can down the road instead of making tough decisions now, by relying on deferred maintenance and tapping into reserves without addressing the issue of an unreliable gross receipts tax base that, even today, is incapable of maintaining the current level of city services.
"I think we are only looking at the next year, and I think when you're talking about sound financial planning and prudent decision making, you have to look at beyond the next year," he says.
As an incumbent, Gonzales in a good position to recapture the mayor's seat again in 2018, when the mayor is set to inherit more power and a bigger paycheck, thanks to the approval of what's known as the "strong mayor" change to the city charter. He took office with expanded powers—the mayor can now cast votes even when councilors are not deadlocked in a 4-4 tie during meetings. And, as it stands, his administration looks like the old one. There aren't many new faces to come up with new ways to prevent the city's balance sheets from bleeding.
After claiming he'd open the position of city manager, who has perhaps more authority than the mayor under the current system, Gonzales did an about-face and kept Snyder in the post. His team includes campaign supporters and holdovers from the administration of Coss—who endorsed Gonzales' candidacy—which has raised concerns that Gonzales is not seeking to move away from the cronyism that plagues Santa Fe government.
He named campaign volunteer Frank Cordero as the tourism department's social media coordinator. In Cordero's résumé, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported, he misspelled the social-media network "Twitter." But the mayor defends the hiring, saying Cordero's skill set isn't just social media commentary but also includes photography.
Similarly, Gonzales' Planning Commission appointments faced unusual scrutiny, including his naming of Vince Kadlubek, a campaign supporter, and the real estate broker Aaron Borrego, whom Gonzales is related to through marriage, to the body, which makes important decisions about new developments in the city. Borrego withdrew his name from consideration, while city councilors eventually approved Kabdlubek's nomination.
Back in Gonzales' office, he lays out a new way of doing business and creating policy, which includes governing by committee. His administration introduced the Climate Action Task Force, saying in an August press release that it's "comprised of environmental and clean energy experts who will be providing counsel to the mayor on programs, policies and ideas the city should undertake to improve Santa Fe's environment and long-term sustainability."
Bushee late last year clashed with Gonzales' attempts to push through a resolution meant to municipalize Santa Fe's power, taking the grid out of the hands of Public Service Company of New Mexico.
Gonzales explains in his office that these groups he's created—which include the Climate Action Task Force and the Children, Youth and Families Community Cabinet—are meant to pull together experts from government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector "for us to agree that, as a community, these indicators are the right ones to move or to measure ourselves against so that when we go back into our own institutions, we are investing in programs that do that."
District 3 Councilor Carmichael Dominguez says, "We can never have too much discussion or dialogue," and cites Gonzales' extra-governmental groups as important to building relationships. But he adds that "if you spread yourself thin" in tackling too many issues, the mayor could risk losing focus.
The mayor defends going outside that process to develop policy by arguing that groups like the Climate Action Task Force are able to engage and unite Santa Fe around common sets of problems. And he adds that his administration is addressing the criticisms that these committees should be subject to some of the same open meeting laws that help shine a light on City Council debates through giving the public notice of meetings and agendas and keeping a record of those meetings.
"It was purposeful to keep it out of the City Council, mostly because the City Council is set up to develop policy that the city budget responds to," he says.
City Councilor Peter Ives, perhaps Gonzales' closest ally on the council, who serves as the mayor pro tem, sits in the mayor's office with Gonzales' energy specialist, John Alejandro.
The topic of discussion is the Climate Action Task Force's recommendation to install solar panels on more city buildings. The mayor admits that the idea isn't new or groundbreaking—the county has also put solar panels on some of its fire stations, for instance. But he says that's not all the committee will focus on.
The mayor grills the two on how the projects would be financed. (Issuing bonds is one option.) Ives says he's prepared to introduce legislation to get it moving in the next two weeks. Later, they talk about how a subcommittee on the task force is looking into what it would take for city vehicles to be powered by biofuel—an issue raised by the Sierra Club in Santa Fe, which endorsed Gonzales.
"That's the actual catalyst that's going to affect the policy work," Ives says of the climate task force; he adds that City Council is "somewhat limited" in the policies it's able to implement.
Limited as it may be, Gonzales is still sharpening his political talents to work with city councilors, even the most critical ones, like Bushee.
Asked if he's been reading any books lately, the mayor responds that he's been busy. He's been surprised by how full the mayor's job—which is a part-time position—has kept his schedule. A review of his calendar, often filled with back-to-back meetings and appearances, supports his contention that he's short on free time.
Luckily, he says, his employer, Rosemont Realty, has been accommodating. He seems to genuinely enjoy being a familiar face and has become somewhat of a man about town. Whereas former Mayor Coss might have been spotted riding public transportation, Mayor Gonzales is often seen in late-night dens like the Palace or rubbing elbows at events with celebrities like George RR Martin and Robert Redford.
As for literature, he says, he recently read Master of the Senate, Robert Caro's epic biography about another Democrat with big ideas, who mastered the craftsmanship of twisting the arms of political opponents to implement policy: former president Lyndon Johnson.
He might be applying some of Johnson's political lessons in City Hall. When Ives and Alejandro brief Gonzales, the mayor asks about another priority of his Climate Action Task Force, which is co-chaired by Coss, before jetting off to another appointment.
"So when are we going to have an urban ag policy?" the mayor asks.
That plan is coming, the team confirms, and its sponsor is Patti Bushee.