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Clear the cloud around Santolina

The Journal’s sheepish editorial (“Court Says County Commissioner Should Have Stayed Mum”) on a recent court ruling striking down zoning changes in the unpopular Santolina Master Plan belies their cheerleading leading up to the County Commission’s vote on the matter in 2015.

Back then the Journal published ex-commissioner Art de la Cruz’s opinion column in favor of the changes before he voted on the issue. After the vote the Journal argued – in its own editorial in favor of the development out on sand dunes southwest of Albuquerque – that the zoning question was a “legislative matter and commissioners are able to argue a position.”

In March of this year, District Judge Nancy Franchini said in her ruling that former commissioner de la Cruz’s opinion column violated ethical standards in quasi-judicial decisions related to zoning changes affecting communities, and that the column “raise[d] questions of partiality and prejudgment, or the appearance thereof, sufficient to warrant at the very least the board’s consideration of the recusal or disqualification of Commissioner De La Cruz.”

In a rare instance of humility, the Journal has finally admitted the “commission, it turns out, can sometimes have a legislative role and sometimes a quasi-judicial one. Even on the same project. A subtle difference to the layperson, but not to the courts.”

In fact, the difference is huge and goes to the very heart of who pays and who benefits in decisions that affect so many. Zoning decisions like these are what makes the land valuable and are one of the core ways that developers rake in the money while the people pay for it in the form of decreased services and increased prices on natural resources. It’s the very reason they are quasi-judicial hearings. The difference is about democracy, and the people of Albuquerque (and Bernalillo County having a) say in decisions that affect their everyday lives.

Despite the Journal’s very own championing of the controversial plan, now its editorial team says “It’s a shame a commissioner’s pre-emptive cheerleading has, at least temporarily, hamstrung the project on something other than its merits. And it serves as a cautionary tale for other elected leaders.”

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At every turn leading up to the vote those in favor of the plan lost the debate on its merits and in the public imagination. What concerned residents didn’t have was someone to objectively represent them on the commission. Instead, they got de la Cruz – a biased commissioner who covered his ears when his constituents urged him to look at the facts, the bottom line and the negative impacts to quality of life for people up and down the Rio Grande Valley.

The other thing residents didn’t have was a paper of record to clear up the cloud that surrounds Santolina and obscures various concerns. It’s a little late to admit you gave de la Cruz a free pass, but it’s not too late to ask hard questions of his de facto successor, Wayne Johnson, and of County Planning Commissioner Johnny Peña, who moved to approve a major zoning change last week without any discussion by the Commission – a slap in the face of the community members who had just given impassioned public testimony.

What’s a shame is the Journal continues to advocate for a plan that lines the pockets of Barclays, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, Rodey Law Firm, and other wealthy elite and that stresses our (city-county) infrastructure, precious water reserves and rhythm of everyday life in the area.

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