Santa Fe City Hall has been open later than most bars in this town recently.
The governing body’s last two regular meetings ran past 11 pm as members mulled a proposal to rezone about 10 acres along Old Pecos Trail for the construction of 25 new homes. And those were relatively early nights.
While 25 new homes are not all that many in a city where thousands more are needed to address an acute housing crisis that’s pricing out working folks, the mere suggestion the City Council would allow anything more than one home per acre along the busy thoroughfare whipped up neighborhood opposition. To hear out the project’s opponents, council members postponed other city business on their agenda to make room for the case and after two inconclusive late-night meetings, scheduled a special hearing on Saturday to deal with the matter once and for all.
After all that hemming and hawing, they voted 6-3 to approve the rezoning—with District 2 councilors Carol Romero-Wirth and Michael Garcia opposed, along with District 3 Councilor Lee Garcia.
The late nights have not only left some councilors fatigued but also asking: Is there another way?
Santa Fe’s governing body usually meets on the second and last Wednesday each month at 5 pm. Long agendas can push meetings into the next day and delay city business that councilors run out of time to address.
“We’ve got to do something different,” Mayor Alan Webber tells SFR before Saturday’s meeting.
Webber said he’s interested in convening councilors more regularly, or considering the Las Cruces City Council’s practice of convening in the early afternoon.
Other local governments may be instructive.
Just down the street from City Hall, the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners convenes its regular meetings at 2 pm. The El Paso City Council meets at 9 am.
Holding meetings after business hours is supposed to make the meetings more accessible to working Santa Feans who can’t duck out of their day jobs to spend hours following a zoning debate.
But District 1 Councilor Signe Lindell says postponing discussion of some issues to accommodate hours of discussion on others can also dissuade residents from participating.
“The more times you put things off, the harder it is to get people to come and give public comments,” she tells SFR.
No one wants to get downtown after work only to hear the issue they’d been preparing to speak on won’t be heard by the council for another couple weeks, Lindell argues. For example, the council has already delayed a vote on a measure she’s backing to increase fines for loud vehicles.
“Some of these things that have been put off for months could have been heard and done,” she says.
The evening sessions don’t necessarily accommodate councilors who have to hold down second jobs, either. Earning a little more than $39,000 a year for their official duties, several councilors have day jobs or run businesses.
District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia says he starts work early each day, making late-night meetings difficult.
“I’m in favor of anything that allows the council to function and the public to participate,” Garcia tells SFR, adding that deciding on weighty and controversial policy issues after 11 pm isn’t ideal.
Lindell concedes that there may not be much appetite for changing meeting times.
The problem is longstanding: The City Council’s own rules are ostensibly designed to keep the governing body from legislating in the middle of the night. They state that matters not heard before 11:30 pm must be postponed, requiring councilors to waive the rules to take up any items later. They have waived them with alarming regularity in recent years, often to the chagrin of those tracking votes and debates. Veterans of the food fight over building a Walmart in town and the ill-fated soda tax have all burned the midnight oil.
There may be other ways of making the council more efficient, or not.
The city’s Charter Review Commission is considering whether the job of councilor should be a full-time gig.
Romero-Wirth, District 1 Councilor Renee Villarreal and District 4′s Jamie Cassutt also introduced legislation earlier this month to let councilors hire staff, if the city budgets money for the purpose. Councilors do not currently have aides, unlike county commissioners, leaving them to manage constituent complaints and research policy on their own.
Moving the final vote on the Old Pecos Trail rezoning to Saturday might have allowed many to attend—a standing room-only crowd packed into the council chambers that morning even after a snowy night—but the attempt at accommodation may be missing the point.
“These meetings would end a lot quicker if they’d just make a fucking decision,” argues Daniel Werwath, executive director of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing and a longtime council watcher.
Werwath has his own criticisms of the Old Pecos Trail project. At about three houses per acre, it’s not dense enough, he says. But the governing body’s slow pace in dealing with the issue bodes poorly for the rest of the city.
It’s a problem of the council’s own making if meetings are running long and other business is postponed for the sake of hourslong debate over 10 acres on Old Pecos Trail, Werwath argues.
If the council were more proactive on zoning and community planning, a debate over 10 acres—25 homes, all told—wouldn’t have even landed in front of members, he contends. As for the late nights and postponed legislation, Werwath says: “The way to end this is to hold a vote.”