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SF Council makes split decision on ranked-choice voting

SANTA FE — The Santa Fe City Council decided Monday night to have it both ways —  the council will start making arrangements to use ranked-choice voting in the 2018 municipal election, as ordered by a district judge last week, but at the same time city government will appeal the judge’s ruling to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Those were the decisions Mayor Javier Gonzales announced after he and the council emerged from an closed executive session that lasted about 95 minutes. But in making the announcement Gonzales indicated a votes had been taken in secret — something that’s not allowed under the law.

After the council voted publicly to waive executive privilege — to permit the mayor and councilors to openly discuss what took place in the closed session — Gonzales announced that “by unanimous vote” the council agreed to take the steps necessary to implement ranked-choice voting in March.

The mayor’s comments were met with applause by a few dozen supporters of ranked-choice voting who attended the meeting. But their enthusiasm was dashed moments later when Gonzales continued with his statement, saying that the council, in a “5-4 decision,” also decided to appeal to the Supreme Court District Judge David Thomson’s order to implement ranked-choice.

The state Open Meetings Act forbids votes from being taken in executive session. “They need to start over and do it over again,” Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said when contacted by a reporter after the meeting.

But City Attorney Kelley Brennan was adamant that no vote was held in executive session. “That was a misstatement,” she said of the mayor’s announcement. “We don’t do that; we’re not allowed to do that.”

When it was pointed out that the mayor said there had been votes and he even provided tallies, Brennan said she was just seeking consensus from the council. “How would you suggest they direct me to take action, which is what executive session is for?” she asked.

Maria Perez, one of the plaintiffs who filed the court complaint that led to Thomson’s order,  was disappointed.”It’s an insult to voters and a waste of taxpayer money to go back an appeal this,” she said. In 2008, Santa Feans voted to implement ranked-choice voting, or RCV, as soon as the software to count votes was available and affordable. The council and mayor voted 6-3 in July to postpone RCV until 2020, out of concern the software still wasn’t ready then and more time was needed to educate voters.

In September, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed directly before the high court that sought to force the city to use RVC right away. The RCV plaintiffs then took their case district court. Last week, Judge Thomson ruled that the necessary software became available in September when the Secretary of State’s office certified it and it should be used in March.

The City Council will hold a public hearing Dec. 20 to get public input on how the ranked-choice voting process is to work. Under RCV, voters rank candidates in races with more than two candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of first-place votes in an initial tally, voters’ second or lower choices come into play.

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