In 2018, Alan Webber, the former businessman, journalist and founder of Fast Company, decided he wanted a new job and spent more money than anyone in the history of a Santa Fe mayoral race. His bid was to make the city’s outdated bureaucracy function more like an efficient and modern enterprise.
It turned out to be a popular sales pitch.
By the time he won the race, Webber had outspent the other candidates three times over and had raised more than $311,000 in campaign contributions from prominent locals and out-of-state allies for the job that now pays $111,000 in annual salary.
“Tonight we commit to making our city government the most user-friendly, service-oriented one in the country. A city government that serves everyone and every neighborhood equally. A city government based not on who you know, but on what you need to get done,” he said during his inauguration speech after winning the city’s first ever ranked-choice election.
Webber earned 66% of the vote in a contest that saw 38% turnout.
For his first two years in office, Webber’s administration moved steadily toward meeting his stated goals on efficiency, housing, the economy and equity, with a few missteps along the way that did little more than raise a few grumpy eyebrows.
Then came 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic set the city back in many of its efforts, but it also motivated Webber to follow through on key campaign promises and earned him a reputation as a strong leader in many circles.
Yet, his bungled response to controversy surrounding historic monuments has left other Santa Feans feeling that the city is only becoming more divided.
His record on transparency has left open government advocates wanting, and criticism of the 72-year-old, first-time elected politician is seemingly coming from all ends of the political spectrum. Webber ran as a progressive and, while many of his initiatives have leaned in that direction, some on the far left have felt like he’s just another centrist Democrat. Meanwhile, among those who identify more in the middle, some have felt like the mayor has left them out of city decision-making.
Undeterred, Webber announced at the beginning of March that he plans to run for a second term.
As of the publication of this story, real estate agent and District 4 City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler is his fiercest competition in the race that will be decided on Nov. 2.
Vigil Coppler has made a name for herself as the City Council’s contrarian by consistently challenging Webber on issues big and small. While she will likely lose the money race, the public controversy regarding the destruction of the Plaza obelisk and Vigil Coppler’s appeal as a lifetime Santa Fean could boost her chances.
However, Vigil Coppler has already caught flack for her decision to vote against Santa Fe’s mask mandate, which she thought was unenforceable.
A third candidate, Alexis Martinez Johnson, announced her intention to enter the race last week. She ran as the Republican candidate in the 2020 election for the 3rd Congressional District. A Santa Fe Police officer charged her with breaking the city’s mask ordinance in September after she campaigned on the Plaza without a mask.
Webber, originally from Missouri, worked in the administration of Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt in the 1970s before moving to Washington, DC, to start his editorial and business career. He moved to Santa Fe in 2003. In 2013, he unsuccessfully ran for governor. He won Santa Fe’s mayoral race decisively in 2018 with progressive and business support and demolished four opponents who were entrenched in local politics.
In reporting for this story, SFR noted a lack of enthusiasm from city residents about the upcoming race, but it’s still early.
Before this year’s mayoral race heats up, here’s a reminder of what Webber said he would do when he took office, and our assessment of what he actually did—all in the context of long-standing, behind-the-scenes problems that impact the city’s most basic functions, as well as hot-button issues that could shape the upcoming election.
Putting the House Back in Order
When Webber ran for office, the city was in financial disarray.
In September 2017, officials released the damning results of an external audit conducted by McHard Accounting Consulting. The McHard report became central to Webber’s campaign as he waved around a copy at debates and slammed it down on the podium at campaign events.
The report highlighted problems from employees’ habit of passing around customer credit card numbers on sticky notes, to the city’s reliance on outdated software and paper record systems that left ample room for fraud and error. The report found that some employees had broad and unsupervised access to the city’s financial accounts, and staff said they were bullied into silence by members of the Finance Department when they raised concerns about the lack of internal financial controls.
Webber pledged to clean up the mess, but it’s unlikely he understood the size of the task.
As ITT Program Manager Manuel Gonzales told city councilors during the city’s fiscal year 2022 budget hearings that when Webber took office, most of the city was one year into a transition to a new efficient Enterprise Resource Planning system, but most departments were still using a 25-year-old software system and computers more than a decade old.
Under Webber’s watch, the city has replaced over 600 electronic devices and integrated the new system into all of its departments, ushering in some improvements.
This helped the city to continue functioning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know they aren’t perfect systems. But without those systems, the city wouldn’t have been able to operate remotely this past year. If we were relying on the old way, which was a paper trail, we would have been shut down completely,” said Gonzales at the budget hearing in April.
Problems remain: Despite improvements in the Finance Department, the city was six months late in submitting its Fiscal Year 2019 financial review to the state.
An independent auditor’s report released in June of 2020 lists 21 deficiencies, weaknesses and other issues in the city’s financial practices, mostly due to a lack of regular accounting throughout the year.
The city has blown its 2020 audit deadline as well—a shortcoming State Auditor Brian Colón called “deeply concerning.”
“Continued failure to timely submit audits is unacceptable and can jeopardize critical funding, such as federal funding,” Colón wrote to Santa Fe city officials.
Webber blames COVID-19 for the delay, and says he’ll use the Fiscal Year 2022 budget to push for fixes, including hiring additional staff in the Finance Department to oversee the massive influx of pandemic relief funds the city expects to receive.
“We are trying to improve a city government that has a lot of challenges,” Webber tells SFR over Zoom. “With the audit, we are getting there, but we’re not there yet.”
A contentious reorganization of multiple city departments that was approved in a divided vote by the City Council last September has been another albatross for Webber.
Vigil Coppler, who has previously worked as a human resources director for the city, Los Alamos County, and the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, raised concerns about the timing, the lack of input or buy-in from lower-level employees, and lack of transparency about the process with councilors and the public.
“I think we’re on a fast track to nowhere.…I think this is not the way to do a reorganization and I’m kind of embarrassed that an organization like us that should be a leader in everything that we do carries on something like this during a pandemic,” she said during a committee meeting on Aug. 24 last year.
The initiative was wildly unpopular with city employees, and played a role in the employees union’s vote of no confidence in the mayor in September. The local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees recently won a lawsuit against the city for failing to give adequate notice of furloughs in the spring.
The union has clashed with the mayor since the beginning of his term, when he initially defended raises awarded by then-City Manager Brian Snyder without council approval to a select group of upper-level employees responsible for the city’s modernization project. Snyder, who approved the pay hikes just days before Webber was elected, resigned at Webber’s request after Vigil Coppler raised concerns that the pay bumps violated city policy.
Webber’s decision to appoint his chief of staff, Jarel LaPan Hill, as city manager last year salved some of those wounds—and follows a trend of young women filling high-powered positions in Webber’s administration.
One part of the reorganization combined the police, fire, recreation and community services departments under the single umbrella of the Department of Community Health and Safety.
“The way you structure your government is an expression of how you want to solve people’s problems,” Webber tells SFR. “I see public health and safety as being really two sides of the same coin.”
He says the new structure will move the city toward a “community policing” and public safety model that relies more on social services and less on police enforcement.
On May 5, the city launched its first “alternative response unit,” which sends out a firefighter, an EMT and a social worker to non-violent and non-criminal 911 calls instead of relying solely on police. The city has budgeted for a second unit next year along with funds to fill over a dozen positions in the police department-— and a police workload assessment to determine how many additional officers the city needs.
Several scandals have plagued the Santa Fe Police Department during Webber’s term.
Last year, an internal audit found flawed evidence-handling practices led to the loss of evidence in several murder cases and other violent crimes. The debacle threw victims and their families into limbo as courts considered whether remaining evidence was sufficient to convict a suspect in at least one case.
The city is working through recommendations from a 2020 evidence room audit that include uploading videos from body and dashboard cameras to a cloud-based storage system, installing new evidence management software and conducting a complete internal audit of sexual assault examination kits.
It is unclear if the department has held anyone accountable for the loss of evidence, adding to a shroud of secrecy around how officers are disciplined when they violate policy.
The city faces multiple lawsuits over its refusal to release records in response to requests under the Inspection of Public Records Act, including one filed by SFR over the failure to release the disciplinary records of two police officers who have been the subject of citizen complaints. This follows the city’s legal battle with SFR over the disciplinary records of officers who fatally shot Anthony Benavidez in 2017.
In May 2020, a state District Court judge in that case ruled that the city broke the law by withholding the records of officers who no longer work for the city. But the judge also ruled that the city acted properly in withholding records for Ben Valdez, the commanding officer in the Benavidez case, who is now the deputy chief of administration for the department.
Webber tells SFR he now thinks there should be more transparency.
“We need to be able to indicate to the community who their police officers are and what their training is and if there are charges of misconduct or misbehavior, they ought to be able to see how those are resolved,” Webber says. “We have had discussions with the police union about a modified review of internal affairs findings, but not the entire investigation.”
While this could signal a shift in the city’s approach, Webber has consistently given the go-ahead for the city to fight tooth and nail against transparency requests in court.
The police department’s response to protests on the Plaza last summer in which dozens of demonstrators tore down part of the obelisk have also been a source of widespread criticism. It comes both from people who thought the police should have cracked down harder on protesters and those who fault the police for pressing charges against individuals involved. After brief altercations with protesters, officers on the scene were commanded to stand down. Later, the department tracked down a handful of people who now face criminal charges.
Before the obelisk, there was de Vargas.
At the beginning of the mayor’s term, the city was in turmoil regarding the Entrada, a fall Fiesta tradition that included a reenactment of Diego de Vargas’ reconquest of Santa Fe in 1692, 12 years after the Pueblo Revolt. Many Santa Feans cherished the Entrada as a celebration of New Mexico’s Hispanic history and culture, but Indigenous activists argued it glorified and sanitized the bloody colonization of the area and its Native tribes.
A year after dramatic protests under former Mayor Javier Gonzales in which police snipers lined the roofs of the buildings surrounding the Plaza and activists were dragged away by officers, Webber successfully convened representatives from the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Caballeros De Vargas—the group responsible for organizing the Entrada—and other groups to sign a proclamation of mutual respect and replace the Entrada celebration with other festivities.
“It was really a beautiful group. We prayed together, we respected each other… and we came up with a beautiful proclamation. If you read the words, they will touch your heart,” says Melissa Mascareñas, who was the president of the Santa Fe Fiesta Council at the time and is one of the people who signed the proclamation. “I think change had to happen, whether some people liked it or not.”
Mascareñas says she appreciated Webber’s leadership at the time.
However, that success has been overshadowed by the way the mayor handled the removal of the Diego de Vargas statue from Cathedral Park and protests over the destruction of the obelisk. Mascareñas tells SFR the events of the summer were “heartbreaking,” and she has lost trust in Webber.
Mascareñas joins others in feeling that Vigil Coppler, who was born and raised in the city, who’s worked in both government and in the private sector, and who understands the complex cultural context of Northern New Mexico will be better able to heal the city’s wounds and successfully lead Santa Fe out of the COVID-19 crisis.
For his part, Lawyer Bruce Throne tells SFR he thinks Webber’s response was not ideal, but he’s willing to give the mayor a second shot.
“I believe he was trying to do the best thing he can to preserve peace in the community and not have the kind of violent outbreaks that have been experienced in other communities regarding some of these controversial monuments, so I understand the criticisms against him, but I think he handled the Entrada issue with grace,” Throne tells SFR.
Throne also credits Webber with steering the city through the pandemic and getting Santa Fe into turquoise—the state’s least restrictive category for COVID orders.
“I credit the mayor with setting a tone in the community and earning a lot of buy-in from people about caring for their neighbors, wearing masks, and so forth,” says Throne.
A City for Everyone
Leading up to the pandemic, Webber’s administration and City Council changed regulations to make it easier to rent a casita, and updated Santa Fe’s inclusionary zoning laws to incentivize construction by giving rental developers flexibility in meeting affordability requirements.
These were important steps, but in many ways they were low-hanging fruit. Between 2018 and 2020, the city only invested about $1.5 million a year in its Office of Affordable Housing.
Today, Santa Fe is short over 7,000 housing units, according to the Santa Fe Association of Realtors—that’s 2,000 more than the number reported in 2018. New apartment complexes are being built all over the city, but almost all will be rented at market rate.
Meanwhile, more Santa Feans than ever are paying rents higher than they can afford, and median home sale prices are now over half a million dollars.
When COVID-19 hit, the city responded by finding temporary housing for all homeless people. In recent weeks, the city also announced it would use unexpected GRT revenues to fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund at the recommended $3 million annual sum in the current fiscal year. Next year’s proposed budget would allocate another $3 million to the fund.
Former Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association President Kim Shanahan, who supported Webber in the last election because of his promises to address the housing crisis, thinks it’s all too little, too late.
Shanahan now works as a sustainability consultant and is a columnist for The Santa Fe New Mexican. He says he does not plan to endorse any political candidate in the upcoming election, but he still has a critique for both candidates.
The city’s biggest housing failure in the last three years, he says, is the lack of a plan for Midtown campus, a 64-acre, city-owned property near the intersection of St. Michael’s Drive and Cerrillos Road that was formerly the campus for the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and costs the city $2.2 million in annual debt payments.
A deal with a Texas-based master developer with plans to build housing and a tech and educational center on the campus fell through in January.
Additionally, he says, the mayor and the City Council have done little to support long-range planning. In his opinion, funds appropriated in the upcoming budget to hire consultants to conduct a long-range planning study would be better spent in-house to hire locals with deep knowledge of Santa Fe’s housing dilemma.
“At the end of the day, we have gone basically three years and have accomplished very little in terms of housing,” he says.
Better housing options, improved tech infrastructure and more jobs were all part of Webber’s vision for Santa Fe.
During his campaign, Webber frequently called for the expansion of broadband access in underserved neighborhoods and to bring the city up to the quality of service expected by the tech sector.
However, City of Santa Fe Asset Development Manager Sean Moody tells SFR this is an exceedingly difficult promise to fulfill due to complicated dynamics between service providers and existing infrastructure that is out of the city’s control.
When the pandemic hit, the city set up mobile internet hotspots in public locations and is still in the process of setting up hotspots to serve a number of mobile home parks on the Southside where there has never been the necessary infrastructure in place to provide quality internet connections.
“The free public hotspots are meant to target the folks who are hardest hit by the pandemic to get the Internet access they need. And for that reason, it’s brilliant,” says Moody, crediting the mayor for acting quickly to make this happen and for keeping equity concerns at the center of the effort.
In another effort to improve Santa Fe’s infrastructure, under Webber’s administration the city approved plans for a long-debated pipeline that would take treated wastewater from Santa Fe’s sewer plant on the Southside and release it into the Rio Grande just below the Buckman Direct Diversion where the city pulls water from the river for municipal use. The pipeline would allow the city to claim return-flow credits and take more water from the river.
Former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, who endorsed a different candidate in the last election but tells SFR he’s not going to weigh in this year, says the tensions Santa Fe currently faces are entrenched.
“I think water and growth are always going to be primary issues; I think how cultures coexist here has been an issue from the beginning and will always be,” says Coss.
Still, he says, with New Mexico leading the nation in its response to COVID-19 and the Biden administration’s plans to spend big bucks on COVID-19 recovery, he sees a massive window of opportunity for whoever gets elected next.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting time, and the City of Santa Fe can benefit a lot from working with the state administration and the administration in Washington,” says Coss. “There are a lot of things to work on, and I would hope the next city administration is really able to be engaged and make the gears match between the city, the county, the state and the federal government to get things done.”
First-Term Report Card
Did Mayor Alan Webber fulfill his promises in his first term? SFR gives a letter grade for each. The following quotes are all taken from things he said in campaign materials and debates, speeches, news releases and news stories from Webber’s 2018 campaign and his first year in office. The mayor’s statements are on the left side of the chart below, and our analysis is on the right.
Cultural Reconciliation — C
What He Said:
“We need to set a national example of how we deal with deep, traumatic, historical experiences and turn them into learning opportunities...We have to try to get ahead of the problem, not wait for it to become a flashpoint. Get together people in leadership, religious organizations, pueblos, and ask advice on how to make the history of Santa Fe something that is a healing experience rather than a divisive experience. "
Webber led months of meetings in 2018 among different groups, resulting in a proclamation of reconciliation and the end of the Entrada. In 2020, Webber promised a similar process to decide the fate of the Plaza obelisk. However, after months of inaction, protesters took down the offending monument themselves. Webber then removed the Diego de Vargas statue from a nearby park “for safekeeping.” The statue was later discovered in someone’s yard. After these events, the city eventually created the CHART committee to discuss solutions to the heightened cultural tensions, but the city later ditched that group in favor of a “culture, history, art, reconciliation, and truth process” led by a consultant. The process has yet to start.
Housing — B-
What He Said:
In his inauguration address, Webber said his vision for Santa Fe included “affordable housing in safe neighborhoods with good schools and inviting parks in every part of our city.”
The city has made casita regulations more flexible and updated its inclusionary zoning codes to make it easier for developers to meet affordability requirements or pay a fee instead. The city recently announced it will fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund up to $3 million this year and next fiscal year. Nevertheless, housing is even less affordable now than it was when Webber took office.
Sustainability — B+
What He Said:
“We can and must be the most sustainable city in the country.”
In 2018, the city published its 25-year sustainability plan, a project that was started under former mayor Javier Gonzales and was continued under Webber. Last year Santa Fe won a LEED Gold certification for cities, and is continuing sustainability efforts with a plan to transition the city’s streetlights to high-efficiency LED bulbs. (Even that move has stirred controversy, however.)
Equal Access to City Government — D-
What He Said:
“All permitting requirements, wage claim documents and other important city information should be in English and Spanish.”
SFR reviewed 40 wage claims and permitting forms and documents on the city website, and found just two in Spanish. The city’s main website has a translation function for all of its content, but the new online permitting sites set up during the pandemic are only in English. Information specifically about the COVID-19 pandemic is available in English and Spanish. The city has proposed $75,000 in its upcoming budget for comprehensive translation services.
Effective Government — B
What He Said:
“Our job is to make the government work better. And to make the budget work.”
The scathing McHard report found that the city did not have good systems for tracking its finances, did not have well-trained staff, and was using shockingly outdated technology and software systems. Webber’s administration has made several internal changes to address these issues and replaced 600 devices. In 2020 the mayor pushed for the reorganization of city government in an effort to make departments more efficient. Still, the city submitted its 2019 audit to the state six months late last year, and is three months past the deadline to submit the audit for 2020.
Police — C-
What He Said:
“Community policing is the way to build a safer Santa Fe.”
Webber’s reorganization of city government combines fire, police and community services into a new Community Health and Safety Department. This month the city launched an “alternative response unit” that will be staffed by a police officer, an EMT and a caseworker to respond to behavioral health related 911 calls. Still, Webber’s police department has had an abysmal record on transparency, sparking several lawsuits (one filed by SFR), and the public still has questions about a scandal in the department’s evidence room that led to destroyed evidence in several high-profile cases.
Gender Equity — A
What He Said:
“I think women belong in every part of city government. I think the city ought to do a study of pay equity and take seriously the opportunity for women to occupy every possible job in city government. I take a lesson from the Prime Minister of Canada—50% of his cabinet was female from day one. If I was the mayor I would make a similar commitment.”
Based on the city’s previous organizational chart, 10 of 19 department heads—or about 52%—would currently be women. Under the new organizational structure, which combines police, fire, and other previously separate departments, seven out of 10—or 70%—of department heads are female. These include high-power positions such as the city manager, the city attorney, and the director of the Finance Department. Results of a 2019 pay equity study found that while women who work for the city earn slightly more than men on average, only 28% of the city’s total workforce is female.