“It’s concerning when a public official goes after someone who is engaging in their First Amendment rights,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who sits on the water authority board.
At issue is the water supply for Santolina, the planned 21-square-mile development southwest of Interstate 40 and 118th Street. Santolina could some day be home to 90,000 people, but in order to move forward with the project, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings must have a fully executed development agreement with the water authority.
Albuquerque’s mayor has a seat on the water authority board, and Keller has been a vocal critic of Santolina for years, calling it sprawl development.
WALH, the Santolina owner, opposes Keller in the mayoral race and contributed $30,000 to a political action committee that ran TV and radio attack ads against Keller.
On Sept. 15 — the same week the ads began running — Keller’s office sent a letter questioning whether the water authority is illegally subsidizing the water infrastructure for Santolina. The letter instructs REDW, the authority’s independent auditor, to look into those allegations, which were made by Norman Gaume, a former water system manager/engineer for the city of Albuquerque, and others.
“It is the routine work of the State Auditor’s office staff to ensure independent auditors have the information they need to safeguard our taxpayer dollars in the hundreds of government entities that we audit,” said Justine Freeman, spokeswoman for Auditor Keller. “Our office has an obligation to evaluate allegations of wrongdoing and this is one of 50 referral letters we’ve sent this year on a wide variety of issues.”
Freeman said the initial complaint about the water authority and Santolina was sent to the Auditor’s Office in June.
“No entity may use public funds to benefit a private company; that would be a violation of the New Mexico Constitution’s Anti-Donation Clause,” Freeman said.
While the Auditor’s Office sent its letter the same week that the Santolina-backed ads began running, the campaign finance report that revealed Santolina’s contribution to the political action committee running them wasn’t filed until Sept. 22, exactly a week after the Auditor’s Office sent its letter. But many speculated from the beginning that developers were behind the attack ads.
“It kind of smells, and so it’s worth looking at,” said Johnson, who had also been running for mayor but didn’t advance to the Nov. 14 runoff. Johnson, who has pending campaign finance ethics complaints against Keller, has endorsed City Councilor Dan Lewis, Keller’s opponent.
WALH, in a statement, accused Keller of abusing his office and said he “has a long history opposing economic development opportunities and master plans like Santolina” on the West Side. WALH added that the letter from the Auditor’s Office, “is just another example of Mr. Keller using his state auditor position to advance his personal interest. The citizens of the westside deserve quality developments like Santolina and public infrastructure similar to the developed portions of the eastside.”