The cheers were loud. And short-lived.
"The governing body, by a unanimous vote, has given direction to proceed forward with ranked-choice voting," Mayor Javier Gonzales read to the packed council chambers. Cheers went up.
"And by a decision of five to four, have agreed to simultaneously appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court," he continued as the room fell silent.
After the Santa Fe City Council spent more than 90 minutes in executive session during a special meeting Monday, the mayor announced that the city would prepare to use ranked-choice voting in the March 6, 2018 election. And, he said, it would also continue to battle against a recent judge's ruling about the charter amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters a full decade earlier that called for the voting system.
"I'm just really disappointed and really surprised," said a dejected Craig O'Hare, one of the citizens who brought the case against the city. "I thought the council would look at the judge's decision and realize it was a sound decision. … I'm just kind of baffled why the city wants to put more legal resources into fighting the will of the people."
The council and the mayor trumpeted their unanimous decision to move forward with the new system, but the reality is that they had little choice. A rule cited by State District Court Judge David Thomson makes it virtually impossible for the city to ignore his order while it appeals. So even as they plan to fight, officials must get ready to rank.
The mayor's usage of the term "vote" to reflect the consensus of the council from its closed-door executive session raised questions about any secret votes and whether they complied with New Mexico's Open Meetings Act.
"They violated the law. The only way to fix that is to call another meeting, properly notice it and vote again in public," said New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Peter St. Cyr.
"The residents of Santa Fe have an interest in and should know how their elected representative voted," St. Cyr said. "How does someone hold a public official accountable if they don't know how they voted? What possible rationale do they have for keeping the way that they voted private?"
"I'm not talking," Councilor Mike Harris told SFR immediately after the meeting. Asked why he didn't want to talk or share his votes, he said, "Because I don't feel like it. … It'll all get sorted out. I'm taking a break."
Councilors Joseph Maestas and Signe Lindell both said they voted in the meeting, in favor of complying with the order to move forward with ranked-choice voting and against the decision to appeal. Mayor Gonzales told SFR he did not agree with the decision to appeal. Councilor Ron Trujillo said he voted in favor of the appeal. Other councilors were not immediately available. Maestas and Trujillo are both mayoral candidates, as is Councilor Peter Ives.
While city attorneys construct the legal basis for an appeal that has likely been considered since Thomson's order last week, the city still needs to figure out how the gears of a ranked-choice voting election will come together. For example, how many choices should voters be given? Two? Three? As many choices as there are candidates?
The charter amendment says the city must use a "voting system allowing voters to rank in order of their preference the candidates for each office appearing on the ballot."
Attorney Teresa Leger de Fernandez, who successfully argued for the writ that forced the city's hand, says the absence of limiting language in the charter means the city has to give the voter the option to rank as many places as there are candidates. She said the current version of the software being installed this month on voting machines statewide allows for 10 candidates.
City Clerk Yolanda Vigil has been openly wary of using ranked-choice voting, and has been silent on the matter since Thomson's decision. Asked what the council's decision meant for her election preparation, she said, "I just continue."
The city is expected to publish two proposed ordinances laying out the planned process for a ranked-choice election on Wednesday. Because the ordinances won't go through the city's normal committee structure, councilors would vote at a full council meeting in two weeks, on Dec. 20.