Santa Fe officials finally took steps to address the old, festering wounds that were freshly ripped open by the toppling of the Plaza obelisk last October, but they seem to be making the walk amid protests from all angles.

Public comments during Wednesday’s City Council meeting exposed fervent opposition to Valerie Martinez, co-founder of the collaborative arts company Artful Life, the city’s choice to lead the Culture, History Art, Reconciliation and Truth (or CHART) process.

“The CHART process will continue to flail and flounder if you continue to engage people who are not representing the Pueblo and Diné communities,” Christina Castro, of Three Sisters Collective, said at the meeting. “We do not need representatives like Valerie Martinez.”

Castro’s comments come days after she and others told SFR Martinez and, in turn, the city, had misrepresented the arts company co-founder’s heritage as both Indigenous and Hispanic.

Despite those concerns—and vague claims of bias by some councilors—the governing body unanimously approved a $254,000 contract for Martinez’ firm.

The arts company is tasked with facilitating the “CHART Initiative including but not limited to the planning, development, coordination, communication, implementation, messaging, and evaluation of community-centered processes that fosters dialogue within the City,” reads the contract.

Before the vote, the council shut out the public to discuss Artful Life’s proposal, tiptoeing up to the line of a potential violation of the New Mexico Open Meetings Act. Councilor Chris Rivera moved to send the meeting into executive session, citing an exception to the act that allows government entities to temporarily close meetings for discussions about purchases over $2,500 “that can be made only from one source.”

The council did not explain how Martinez’s is the only firm that could lead the CHART process, and the city has not previously indicated that Artful Life was the only company considered. Rather, city staff explained earlier in the night that three proposals came in during a formal bid process. One was disqualified early for not submitting required documents, Artful Life then outscored the remaining bidder and was formally recommended by a selection committee, staff said.

Activists say any dialogue led by Martinez will not produce healing or truth because she falsely claimed Indigenous roots. The city touted Martinez’s Diné and Pueblo heritage upon announcement of her nomination, but by her own admission she is not an enrolled member of any Indigenous community, as SFR reported last week.

Moises Gonzales, an Albuquerque-based artist, author and professor, says Martinez’s past track record with community projects should be noted. Martinez sits on the Bernalillo County Arts Board, which Gonzales says has come under criticism for a lack of diversity in its public art projects.

“A lot of people are frustrated because there hasn’t been a push for diversity, even among the awards, to people of color, Indigenous artists,” Gonzales tells SFR. “There’s been a lot of criticism of that board.”

The council posed questions about the evaluation committee and vetting process that led to Artful Life’s recommendation. The discussion prompted Councilor Michael Garcia to question the governing body’s independence on the matter.

Garcia hinted, based on communications from constituents, that the approval of the contractor was “predetermined” and biased. Garcia cited communications between Mayor Alan Webber and the proposed contractors prior to the public meeting.

The mayor shot back.

“You are asserting bias...This is a matter of personal integrity and I’m not going to let it go,” Webber says of Garcia’s claims.

Councilor Renee Villarreal posed the million dollar question to Martinez, asking her to explain the confusion surrounding her identity.

Martinez responded with a prepared speech outlining her New Mexican heritage: “I am not an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation nor any of the 19 Northern Pueblos of New Mexico.”

Martinez says she grew up in Santa Fe, not on the Navajo Nation or San Ildefonso Pueblo. “Like many New Mexicans I am mixed blood,” she said.

Rivera asked Martinez to assure the public that she will keep herself independent as a facilitator. She responded: “Whatever biases I have...aren’t as important as the perspective of those who participate.”

Councilors expressed uncertainty over the success of the CHART process throughout the evening.

“This proposal has only created future and more division in our community, which is saddening.” Garcia said. “To hear folks say things like, ‘Our voice is not heard,’ it’s really making me question, ‘Are we really getting this right?’”

On the incorporation of art into the healing process, Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, who is running against Webber for mayor, said: “It’s just not what I am comfortable with and what I know works, but I think it’s something that’s worth a try.”

“Santa Fe should just start with the truth and not even bother with the reconciliation,” Gonzales tells SFR. “Let’s try to get to the truth first.”

Editor’s Note: SFR added details about the city’s selection process for the CHART contract.