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Does Santa Fe Need a Stronger Mayor?

SFR breaks down the four proposals that would change how the mayor operates

October 18, 2013, 7:00 pm
By Joey Peters

Four proposals before the Santa Fe City Council would significantly change how much power its mayor holds.

“The main power of the mayor will always be as a bully pulpit,” Mayor David Coss said at a special City Council dedicated to the topic earlier this week.

But when it comes to governing, those who serve as Santa Fe’s mayor often have their hands tied. 

Under today's system, known as a "weak mayor" form of government, the mayor’s greatest power is hiring and firing the city manager, which is the most important position in municipal government. It’s the city manager, not the mayor, who hires and fires city staff and names city department heads. City Council, however, can fire the city manager on a majority vote.

Some argue that this configuration has led to a revolving door of managers. Since 1995, Santa Fe has gone through 11 of them. As for city legislation, the mayor can only vote as a tiebreaker on the eight-member city council.

An appointed city charter review commission proposed a ballot measure for the 2014 election to see whether voters want the mayor to have more power.  Now councilors are backing competing measures on the same topic. 

Coss says he likes the way it works in the Duke City.

“Personally I would prefer a strong mayor a la Albuquerque,” Coss said at the meeting, “where you’d have a chief of staff, where you wouldn’t want the mayor to vote on every land use appeal that comes up.”

The four proposals that would change the mayor’s power are:

The “Weak” Mayor, which would give the mayor full voting rights with the City Council. The proposal is recommended by city Councilor and current mayoral candidate Patti Bushee.

The “Strong” Mayor, which would the mayor full voting rights and make it tougher for Council to fire the city manager (they would need a yet-to-be-determined ‘supermajority’). This proposal is supported by Councilors Peter Ives and Rebecca Wurzburger, (She's also running for mayor).

The “Stronger” Mayor, which would increase the mayor’s job hours to full-time and hike the pay from $29,000 to a yet-to-be-determined salary. The mayor would also have full voting rights. The power to hire city department directors would be taken from the city manager and transferred to the mayor. City council would also be stripped of the authority to fire the city manager. This proposal is recommended by both the charter commission and was presented by Ives and Wurzburger.

The “Strongest” Mayor, which makes the position full time for a salary 10 percent higher than the highest-paid city department job. Like the “stronger” mayor, the position gets full voting rights and the authority to hire and fire department directors. But the city manager position is eliminated and city council gets to fire the city attorney, the city clerk and the city department directors by an undefined “supermajority.” Though he says he supports the current mayoral setup, City Councilor Chris Rivera says he’s proposing this measure in the name of "transparency." 

While some have argued that the mayor’s powers should be strengthened because the mayor is the only municipal position elected by voters throughout the entire city, Councilor Chris Calvert said he disagreed with that perception because Santa Fe doesn’t require runoff elections when candidates fall short of a majority vote the way that Albuquerque does.

“If 25 percent of the people elect the mayor, does he really represent the whole city?” Calvert asked.

Bushee says she's concerned that some proposals are "a hybrid where we still have a strong mayor position and a strong city manager position.” She favors sending the whole issue back the charter commission for more vetting.

Not all charter commission members agree on the proposal either. Member Steven Farber, a former city councilor, wrote a minority report warning against giving the mayor too much authority.

But charter member Daniel Werwath maintained that delaying the process would only make things muddier. He added that the 16 charter commission meetings weren’t spent “reading minutes” or “reading articles on the internet.”

“A lot of you sound like you’re representing your interests as councilors, not as representing your constituents,” he told the Council at the meeting. “I see people that are afraid of change on the Council, and I’m sure they’re will be plenty of people in the public that are afraid of change. Let's give them that choice. Let’s give them an opportunity to vote on this.”

The council might vote on a proposal to send to the electorate as soon as Nov. 15. Even if voters adopted one of the changes, it would not apply to the incoming mayor.

 

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