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SF mayor: No improper secret votes on ranked-choice

SANTA FE – Mayor Javier Gonzales said Tuesday he was wrong when he said the City Council voted in a closed executive session Monday night — which would have been illegal — on two matters related to a judge’s order that Santa Fe must implement a ranked-choice election system next year.

Late Tuesday, the city released a “clarifying statement” on what transpired. “There is some confusion regarding what occurred in executive session last night relating to the Open Meetings Act, and my use of the word ‘vote’ only added to that confusion,” the mayor said.

On Monday, after the mayor and council spent nearly two hours behind doors, Gonzales announced that the council “by unanimous vote” decided to proceed with implementing the ranked-choice voting method called for in the city’s charter, but in a “5 to 4 decision” also decided to appeal to the state Supreme Court a district judge’s order to implement ranked-choice in the 2018 municipal election.

The Journal North reported in a Tuesday article that voting in closed session violates the New Mexico Open Meetings Act. The state Attorney General’s Office said the same thing Tuesday. “According to the law, all actions and final decisions, including votes, must take place in public session,” said spokesman James Hallinan.

Gonzales said that during discussion in executive sessions City Attorney Kelley Brennan will sometimes ask for clarification from councilors. “It was clear from the discussion that there were five members who favored an appeal and four who did not. That is how the direction emerged and was taken by staff,” he said. “No vote was taken. There was no show of hands, no roll call, no ‘yeas’ or ‘nays,’ no ballots passed out and collected, nor any other action that could be construed as a vote for the purposes of the Act.”

By the mayor’s account, nothing official or binding took place Monday. The council didn’t vote on the two issues — appealing to the Supreme Court or proceeding to make plans ranked-choice voting — in public, either. Public votes to take action on issues discussed in executive session are standard practice .

Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the council should have done so.  “We should not give up these rights by letting little things go by,” he said Tuesday. “It may not seem like a big thing when we know the vote will likely be the same. They need to re-notice the meeting and take a vote in public. It’s the idea of doing it right from the beginning.”

Against the appeal were Gonzales and Councilors Joseph Maestas, Sig Lindell and Renee Villarreal. For it were Councilors Ron Trujillo, Peter Ives, Chris Rivera, Carmichael Dominguez and Mike Harris.