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Should Santa Fe’s mayor get paid like a CEO or not?

SANTA FE, N.M. — To gather public input on its recommendation to pay Santa Fe’s mayor a salary ranging from $145,000 to $175,000, the city’s Independent Salary Commission held a meeting specifically for that purpose Wednesday night.

It got an earful.

“The government has got to stop picking people’s pockets,” said Richard Barela, adding that Santa Fe County is now considering increasing the gross receipt tax when people are struggling to pay rent and buy gas.

He and several others among the 20 people who spoke were appalled by the recommended pay range, especially because voters in 2014 approved an amendment to the city’s charter to make the mayor a full-time position – starting after the March 2018 municipal elections. The ballot question said the salary would be set at $74,000 “until such commission is created and sets the salary for mayor.”

Some believe there’s been a bait and switch.

“Contrary to what’s been said, people did vote for a mayor with a salary of $74,000,” said Kenneth Jacks, who suggested that had something within the higher range been listed there might have been a different outcome.

Others said including the $74,000 figure was “misleading” and “dishonest.”

In a city where the median household income is $53,000, Jacks and others said, the salary should be more in line with what the citizenry makes and not the salary of a CEO. Some said an elected mayor may not be qualified to be a CEO and shouldn’t be paid like one.

Gregg Bemis

Gregg Bemis

Perhaps Gregg Bemis, a former Republican congressional candidate, best summed up the feelings of many in the O’Keefe Room at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

“I don’t believe you should be paying for a silk purse if you’re going to get a sow’s ear,” he said.

Paul Hultin, chairman of the salary commission, emphasized the salary range wasn’t set in stone.

“Nothing is decided. We’re gathering input, including public comment tonight,” he said.

The commission plans to make a final decision on the mayor’s salary when it meets again Wednesday.

Salary survey

The commission based the salary range in part on a survey conducted by a team of college interns, which looked at the salaries of mayors of cities in the Rocky Mountain region of comparable size that employ full-time mayors. The cities included Provo and Odgen, Utah, Missoula, Mont., and Meridian and Pocatello, Idaho.

It also considered the salaries of Santa Fe’s schools superintendent and county manager, both of whom make about $180,000. And it factored in the salaries of city employees, 121 of which make more than $74,000, led by City Manager Brian Snyder, who makes $146,000, plus a benefits package worth about $61,000.

Benefits for a mayor with a salary of $175,000 would push total compensation to something in the range of $245,000.

Shannon Moore Boniface, owner of Careers First Employment Agency and appointed to the commission by Mayor Javier Gonzales as a representative from the human resources industry, flatly stated that the Santa Fe electorate did not vote to set the mayor’s salary at $74,000 when it approved the amendment to the city’s charter in 2014, saying that figure only served as “a placeholder.”

In setting the salary range the panel adopted the premise that a full-time mayor acts as a CEO and it was both “common sense” and industry standard that the CEO is paid more than everyone they manage, she said.

Under the amendment approved by voters in 2014, the full-time mayor was granted supervisory authority over the city manager, clerk and attorney and gets to appoint people to fill those jobs. The mayor is also tasked with preparing the annual budget and identifying a legislative agenda.

Fifty-eight percent of voters approved the amendment three years ago during what was the last mayoral election.

The winner of that 2014 election has also gone on record, via Twitter, saying he thinks the range set by the commission was too much.

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales

“While I’m grateful for their work, I do believe the range currently being considered is too high to ask taxpayers to cover,” Gonzales tweeted the day after the commission established its recommended range. “I am urging them to give serious consideration to lowering the range as they listen to the public input before making their final decision.”

Gonzales hasn’t said yet if he’s running for re-election next year. City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who also opposes the commission’s proposed pay range, is the only announced 2018 mayoral candidate.

Former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna, who headed the committee that put the full-time mayor proposal and eight other charter questions on the 2014 ballot, was judicious in his remarks to the commission on Wednesday. He said the salary range the commissioners came up with is “reasonable” based on the data they used but that he has confidence they would not go with the “high end of that range.”

A 2016 city ordinance gives the Independent Salary Commission the “sole power to review and set” the mayor’s salary, once every four years. The mayor’s pay is now $14.22 an hour – about $29,575 a year, the same as for city councilors. The positions have not been considered officially full-time.

One supporter

While Serna and a few others complimented the commission on its work, only one spoke in support of its recommendation. Cyndi Conn said a high salary would attract the best candidates for mayor. “I believe you get what you pay for,” she said.

But Phil Kithil later asked, “Will you attract better people or worse people?” He said a high-paying position would attract some unqualified people who were “in it for the money.”

It was also pointed out that Gov. Susana Martinez is paid a base salary of $110,000 and the high end of the salary range suggested by the commission approached what the mayors of New York and Los Angeles make. The pay for Albuquerque’s mayor was recently raised to $125,000.

There were contentious moments at the meeting at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center as some speakers expressed anger over what they perceived as a ridiculously high salary range. A few also criticized the process, which involved the establishment of the commission appointed by the mayor.

“I have no connection with you. You don’t represent me at all,” Toni Montoya, a former city and school employee who lives on the west side, told the commission made up of an attorney, a business owner, a CEO of an investment firm, a retired professor and representatives of the city’s neighborhoods and the Chamber of Commerce, only one of whom has a Hispanic surname.

One man suggested the process was rigged.

“Does anyone find it weird that the mayor selects the people on the commission?” asked Jim Williamson.

He added that two committee members had contributed money to Gonzales’ mayoral campaign, which he said gave the “appearance of impropriety.”

Williamson urged the commission to defer the decision on setting the mayor’s salary until after next year’s election, when the mayor’s seat and four City Council positions will be on the ballot.

Yvonne Chicoine

Yvonne Chicoine

Yvonne Chicoine, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Santa Fe County, said the salary range the commission proposed was another example of the disconnect between politicians and the people they serve. She also told the commission it wasn’t obligated to make a decision at all.

Referring to the wording of the amendment, she said, “Nothing says it has to happen now.”

Simon Brackley, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, said in talking to businesspeople in the community he found that many of them are confused by the structure of city government under a full-time mayor. He said details have been lacking with regard to the chain of command and there’s concern about duplication of duties under the new framework.

“I think this is beyond just numbers,” he said of the city salary figures. “I think it goes to transparency and responsibility.”

Gayle Dawn Price suggested the commission forget about the facts and statistics it had accumulated and send a message to struggling families by setting a lower range.

Karen Setters said the commission should “consider the welfare citizens” and that its only consideration should be “for the good of Santa Fe.”

Paul Hultin

Paul Hultin

In an interview after the meeting, commission chairman Hultin, a lawyer who moved to Santa Fe permanently in 2012 and was involved in the campaign to pass the city charter changes that included the full-time mayor provision, said the public’s input will be taken into consideration when the commission meets next Wednesday to make a final decision.

Asked if there was a chance it might take the advice of those who suggested putting off a decision, he said that was unlikely.

In accordance with the task assigned to the commission, “We have a duty to act,” he said.