New Mexico's liquor laws are enough to drive you to drink.
Every time a liquor license is transferred—and there are all sorts of different kinds—or every time a new beer and wine license is needed, every time someone wants to serve alcohol at something like a gallery opening or a fundraiser, every time booze is slung within 300 feet of a church or a school, the City Council has to give the okay.
Sometimes, such as the roughly 15 minutes spent on four alcohol-related items Wednesday night, it's relatively smooth sailing. All passed unanimously. Other times, if there's a new liquor store in the neighborhood or a transfer to an owner who's had run-ins with the community in the past, it can take an hour or more.
About an hour after the governing body dealt with those measures on this week's agenda, it passed an ordinance that aims to make council meetings a little—or sometimes a lot—more manageable.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council and mayor passed a bill co-sponsored by Councilor Signe Lindell and Mayor Alan Webber that creates a hearing officer position to handle much of the public input and administrative legwork that's currently taken on by the governing body. The move will cost the city about $11,000 annually.
From a public standpoint, the ordinance has some advantages and at least one disadvantage. More often than not, alcohol-related issues are not big talkers at council meetings. But they do take time. Removing them from the City Council agenda will let the people who aren't interested get to more controversial topics, such as the aid-in-dying resolution on the docket Wednesday night (approved by a 6-2 vote).
On the other hand, anyone wanting to address a liquor license matter as well as something on the governing body's agenda will now have two meetings to attend.
While the measure makes things easier for the governing body, former City Councilor Karen Heldmeyer said during testimony, it's not necessarily easier for the public, especially considering the new hearings would likely be held during working hours.
"I know why you're doing this. It's to save time … but state law calls for these to be public hearings," she told councilors. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, that isn't a problem. But it's that 100th time that's the problem."
"If you're going to have a public hearing, you have to have it at a time when real people can come," she urged. "You've got to make sure that people who have something to say can be heard."
The council didn't change the ordinance to require hearings after normal business hours, which Heldmeyer described as a catch-22 in which it's impossible to measure the people who don't show up. Later in the debate, however, Webber theorized that anyone who was upset with the new process could address it during the period of time at each City Council meeting in which the public can address the governing body on any matter.
Under the new law, the city will choose two attorneys to handle alcohol-related hearings on a contract basis. They'll make $150 an hour and be appointed to four-year terms. Those attorneys will hold the hearings and handle any public testimony, then decide on the matter within a week and forward their findings and the record of the hearing to the city clerk's office. The council has 30 days to vote on any liquor license matter.
The hearing officer's determination will go to the City Council and be placed on the consent calendar, which is a collection of generally administrative items the governing body votes on en masse to save time. As with any other measure on the consent calendar, a councilor or the mayor can pull an alcohol-related decision off the calendar to debate it and vote up or down individually.
Compounding the governing body's ongoing frustration with handling liquor license transfers, approvals, alterations and special dispensing permits has been the fact that if an applicant has an issue with a decision made by the mayor and city councilors, the appeal is to the state Alcohol and Gaming Division. The city often has no further say in the matter.
The ordinance passed Wednesday would not affect the appeals process, which is set out by the state's Liquor Control Act.
At the suggestion of Councilors Renee Villarreal and Carol Romero-Wirth, city staff will report on the new process yearly.