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Santa Fe to weigh keeping the city manager’s pandemic power shift in place

Santa Fe City Council holds an in-person meeting at City Hall on May 11, 2022. (William Melhado)

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world seemed to be in free fall and it was unclear how local government would even function, Santa Fe’s mayor and City Council voted to give the city manager additional powers. Instead of having the mayor and council approve purchases over $60,000, for example, the city manager was given authority to sign for contracts up to $200,000.

It was the kind of change that could allow the city to get relief dollars out the door faster in an emergency.

Over the last three years, the past and current city manager have used these powers to sign for about $20 million in spending that previously would have required approval from elected officials. The total includes nearly $7.8 million approved in 2022 by the current City Manager John Blair.

But the expanded authority wasn’t meant to be permanent. The ordinance councilors approved back in 2020 says the city manager only has this authority as long as the state or the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she will let the state’s public health emergency expire on March 31, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a “manageable situation.”

Still, the city manager’s expanded powers may not disappear.

“It’s under review,” Mayor Alan Webber tells SFR.

Webber says the city attorney is examining the pandemic powers and the mayor signaled he is interested in letting the city manager keep the authority to sign for larger purchases rather than taking such requests to a formal vote of the council.

“We have a very cumbersome process as it is with moving contracts,” Webber says. “It’s slow.”

Back in 2020, Webber argued that holding votes on all purchases over $60,000 amounted to extra work for overextended city staff. Contracts already go through a purchasing process at City Hall. For formal votes, staff must prepare additional memos and shepherd the contracts through committee hearings as well as the council.

And councilors have expressed frustration recently with the pace of the city’s governing body, which has seen meetings drag late into the night, gumming up other business in the process.

District 3 Councilor Chris Rivera, says he would also support raising the dollar amount that the city manager can approve on his own from $60,000.

“$60,000 in these days and times might be low,” he says. Still, $200,000 might be a little high, Rivera adds.

The key is to let business move smoothly while ensuring the City Council has adequate oversight, he says.

But some councilors are not convinced.

“I’m open to letting it expire and letting us get back to business as usual,” says District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia.

While the city manager is required to provide monthly updates on contracts he has approved that are worth more than $60,000, those updates are not posted publicly or included in the council’s agendas and Garcia says that has led to less public awareness about how the city spends taxpayer money.

“Some contracts would have generated some discussion,” he says.

District 1 Councilor Signe Lindell tells SFR the issue merits at least a conversation now. After all, the city manager’s expanded pandemic authority was approved during a glitchy Zoom meeting in March 2020.

“I think it certainly deserves a discussion and a review of the sizable contracts that have been signed. Perhaps it is a good idea and perhaps it contributes to our efficiency,” Lindell says.

After all, it was only in 2018 that councilors agreed to let the city manager approve contracts worth up to $60,000—a cap previously set at $50,000.

Spending approved under the $200,000 limit has included the sort of thing councilors likely expected in the early months of the pandemic, such as contracts to provide shelter for people living on the streets. But it has also included a range of other contracts, such as exactly $200,000 for marketing the Santa Fe Airport in 2021.

In the meantime, the city has fallen behind on its financial audits to the extent that state officials are withholding funding for capital projects and Santa Fe is at risk of losing its bond rating.

Blair didn’t respond to a voicemail message or an email seeking comment. Webber says any long-term change to the city manager’s powers would be presented to the council.

And other cities in New Mexico have taken similar steps recently. The Las Cruces City Council, for example, voted in February to give the city manager authority to approve purchases up to $100,000, instead of $75,000. Some cities simply give their managers more autonomy. In Rio Rancho, the city manager can sign for some purchases up to $500,000 without approval from the mayor and council.

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