John Blair Under Fire

City councilor calls for vote on terminating city manager

City Manager John Blair publicly apologized to city councilors at Wednesday night’s governing body meeting for failing to disclose a letter to them in August, but just a few minutes later District 3 Councilor Lee Garcia called for a vote to fire Blair.

Such a vote could take place at the next regularly scheduled council meeting on Nov. 8.

Last month, the Santa Fe New Mexican obtained a letter sent from the state Department of Finance Administration (and later shared with SFR) advising that state officials plan to continue to withhold legislative appropriations until the city completes its late audits. Finance Director Emily Oster has said the Fiscal Year 22 audit will be complete by Dec. 4, but it remains unclear whether city officials will meet the deadline for FY23 later in December.

Some city councilors have continued to criticize Blair’s decision to not disclose the letter until just before the newspaper published the story. Blair previously said he had not shared the letter due to “complicated policy and political and communication issues related to trying to resolve the issue,” and because “the fewer people who knew, the better.” He issued a statement Sept. 29 apologizing for the action, then said Wednesday he realized he should do so publicly in person.

“By not sharing it with you all sooner, it put you into an awkward situation, and I apologize for that,” Blair said during the “matters from the city manager” portion of the meeting. “As I said in the statement, I am committed to transparency in government, and I’m happy to work with any and all of you who have ideas of things you think we can do to be doing a better job around transparency in government…I have worked very hard in the two years I’ve been here to be as transparent with you as possible, and I think I usually do a pretty good job, and I think we just missed the mark on this one.”

When Garcia took his turn during “communications from the governing body,” he said the City Council is obligated to “provide consequences” when staff violate ethical standards and later made a specific request to the mayor to schedule a vote on terminating Blair. The city charter allows the council to remove or suspend the manager with a vote of six members at a regularly scheduled governing body meeting.

“So therefore, in reference to the letter sent to Mayor Webber on August 23rd, 2023 from the Department of Finance and Administration and the decision by the city manager to withhold this pertinent information, not only to the elected body but also the citizens of Santa Fe, it is in the purview of this governing body to have the opportunity to discuss this action in executive session,” Garcia said. “...Furthermore, after the meeting in executive session, I will request that the governing body takes action. Please note: I request this item to be placed on the next governing body agenda and properly noticed to the public.”

Mayor Alan Webber’s administration has a rocky history with city managers. In 2019, Erik Litzenberg became the second city manager to resign within the first two years of Webber’s initial term. Jarel LaPan Hill served as manager for two and a half years, but stepped down in January 2022.

District 3 Councilor Christopher Rivera said his own response to Blair’s decision to withhold the letter is ongoing, launching into a hypothetical that rang like a shot at Blair without ever saying the city manager’s name.

“If I were a CEO or top administrator of a big company and my main goals were to be transparent and accountable to a board, but also the public, and I made a decision not to provide information to the board because I was afraid it would get out to the public, that would put some stress, I think, on a relationship,” Rivera said. “And because of the decision that was made, it basically made public information not available to the public when it should’ve been, and I appreciate the fact that if I said it and I made myself accountable, that I would also be prepared to deal with any consequences that came of that.”

District 1 Councilor Signe Lindell made only a brief statement. “It’s unfortunate to see people engage in the politics of personal destruction,” she said.

Webber, who had prepared written remarks on the topic, said “transparency and trust are the issues of the day,” not only for local governments but at the national and corporate levels as well. He said members of the council including Rivera had presented constructive ideas for reforming human resources policies for high level positions such as manager, clerk and attorneys, as well as the rest of city staff.

“It’s not just a matter of a letter from DFA, although I think that letter could’ve been handled better, it was a mistake. It has been labeled a mistake and owned up to as a mistake. I would say there are differences in errors: there are errors of judgment, and there are errors of character. I don’t think this is an ethics violation, I think this was a badly-handled piece of information and won’t be repeated,” Webber said. “I acknowledge fully that when it comes to transparency and trust, it starts from the top. We each, starting with me, need to model the behavior that demonstrates our commitment to transparency.”

Webber said he plans to introduce new evaluation forms at City Hall that would allow councilors to provide job performance feedback about high-level staff aa an “ongoing managerial practice.”

District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia did not comment on the city manager during the public conversation, but said in a candidate forum earlier this fall that he thought the city manager should be fired if the city’s audits were not on time for FY23.

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