Remaking the Mayor

Charter review commission considers the powers of the city’s chief executive and other governance issues for a future ballot

Eight years after Santa Fe voters made the role of mayor a full-time gig, residents may get another chance to rework the position’s job description.

A new commission is embarking on the once-a-decade task of proposing changes to the way Santa Fe is governed. Perhaps the biggest question facing the group already is how to better define the city’s top elected job. The last charter review commission in 2014 proposed the sort of “strong mayor” system Santa Fe has today, with the mayor getting a vote on the City Council as well as the power to hire the city manager.

But all of this has left the mayor standing in both the legislative and executive branches of city government. And city councilors want some clarity.

In setting up the new charter review commission, the council tasked commissioners with considering nine issues—three relating directly to the powers of the mayor and council. For example, councilors directed the commission to consider whether the mayor should be more like an administrator rather than a lawmaker, and how to delineate a separation of powers between the mayor and the council.

The nine-member commission will also consider making city councilors full-timers, too. And members will discuss whether “the roles of the mayor, councilors and city manager should be better defined.” Previously, the mayor only had a tie-breaking vote, for example, but currently votes in all matters.

“It’s one of the areas that is currently evolving in the city based on the prior changes,” City Attorney Erin McSherry told the commission during a hearing Dec. 15, when members discussed the list of issues facing them and tossed out some of their own ideas.

Peter Ives, an ex-city councilor and former candidate for mayor serving on the commission, tells SFR he supported making the role of mayor a full-time job and hasn’t changed his view.

“The city was certainly complex enough as a construct to be worthy of a full-time mayor,” he says. “I’m not aware of any reason, myself, to change that.”

But Ives adds that he wants to further examine the responsibilities of the mayor and the council, such as whether the mayor should be limited to executive decisions—as is the case in Albuquerque and other cities.

“Whether we shift some of that legislative function or create a purely executive function is a question we clearly need to look at,” he says.

The commission will consider other questions. For example, members will rethink the number of council districts and the city’s practice of electing two members per district.

That practice spurred another question for the commission to consider: Each district elects two councilors—one every two years. But a councilor elected the same year as a mayor must choose to forgo re-election on the council to pursue the city’s highest post, a quandary that councilors elected in off-years do not face. To that end, councilors instructed the commission to consider whether a councilor who has lost a campaign for mayor may remain in office after the inauguration of a new mayor—a move that could level the political playing field between councilors elected in staggered years.

All of this could lead the commission to propose scrapping the practice of electing two members per district, as Commissioner Nancy Long hinted.

“If the recommendation were to have four districts with one councilor and their terms are coterminous with the mayor, it seems like it would solve that problem,” she told commissioners. “We wouldn’t have staggered terms any more and I know people like that but I wonder if there’s some way to deal with that inequity.”

Other items on the commission’s list are likely non-starters. Should the council include an “at-large member”—that is, a councilor elected by the entire city rather than a particular district? That one likely won’t get far because state law says a city of Santa Fe’s size must elect council members from districts, a rule re-emphasized in a 1980s voting rights case out of Gallup.

Commissioners are also offering their own ideas. Citing a suggestion from a local resident, Ives said at last week’s meeting that the commission should consider rent control, which is prohibited under state law but generating more interest among lawmakers amid the ongoing housing crisis.

And other commissioners want to examine the efficiency of the city’s myriad boards and committees.

The commission is due to recommend changes to the city charter by May 10. Those proposals could, in turn, end up on voters’ ballots in the city’s November election. Voters will also be choosing a municipal judge and one councilor from each district.

And commissioners say they are open to suggestions. The body meets again at 5 pm, Jan. 12 at City Hall.

Editor’s note: The first sentence of the story contained an error in an earlier version and has been corrected.

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