Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
After 10 years on the Bernalillo County Commission, Maggie Hart Stebbins is leaving for a new state job.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has appointed her former colleague as the state’s natural resources trustee. Hart Stebbins will start in the $110,000-a-year job next week and said she will step down from the County Commission no later than mid-January. She has a year left on her term.
Hart Stebbins, 57, has been on the governing board of the state’s most populous county since 2009, and currently serves as its chair.
She said it is difficult to leave but that she is heading to a job she has “always wanted to do.”
“I wouldn’t take the job if I didn’t feel like I could have an impact on something that New Mexicans care about, and that is protecting our natural resources,” she said.
Lujan Grisham – herself a onetime Bernalillo County commissioner – will appoint someone to fill Hart Stebbins’ seat. The governor’s spokesman said she will solicit applications, conduct interviews and intends to choose someone who will not pursue the office in the next election.
That is her way of “ensuring voters have every opportunity to choose” the permanent replacement, spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Hart Stebbins to the County Commission 10 years ago to fill a vacancy when Deanna Archuleta left for a job with President Barack Obama’s administration. Richardson said in a Journal interview at the time that Hart Stebbins “assured me she would be a conservationist.”
Hart Stebbins subsequently won three elections to keep the seat representing District 3, which includes most of central Albuquerque. She was unopposed in 2012 and 2016.
Term limits would have precluded her from seeking another consecutive term.
Hart Stebbins was behind some of the highest-profile legislation passed by the commission this year. She introduced a single-use plastic bag and foam container ban and co-sponsored an ordinance requiring businesses to offer paid leave to workers – a policy with passionate supporters and detractors. Both take effect in the unincorporated areas of the county next year – the bag ban on Jan. 1 and the paid leave mandate on July 1.
But several monumental changes have occurred during her decade-long tenure, including the implementation of a special, voter-approved gross receipts tax to fund behavioral health services and an overhaul of county leadership. Hart Stebbins and then-commissioner Lujan Grisham were among the driving forces behind the 2011 ouster of county manager Thaddeus Lucero following mismanagement and a nepotism scandal involving a subordinate.
Hart Stebbins, who has a history degree from Harvard, has been working full-time as a commissioner but was previously employed by the Mid-Region Council of Governments. She said she has long been interested in the Office of Natural Resources Trustee job and feels prepared for the role in part because of her experience helping watchdog the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill cleanup in her capacity as a commissioner and Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board member. She was also behind a new ordinance aimed at preventing septic systems from polluting groundwater with nitrates.
“The Office of Natural Resources Trustee has an incredibly important role in protecting New Mexico’s natural resources and addressing contamination, and it has been underfunded and under-utilized for many years,” Hart Stebbins said. “I will change that.”
The office is among the smaller state agencies with a current operating budget of $2.3 million. Hart Stebbins will have a three-person staff.
The Office of Natural Resources Trustee is an independent state agency but has an administrative link to the New Mexico Environment Department. Its mission is “to return injured natural resources and the services they provide to the condition that would have existed absent the release of contamination,” according to its website.
It does not currently have a full-time leader; Environment Secretary James Kenney has handled that responsibility on an acting basis for the last year.
The position has not had a full-time occupant since the end of 2009 – including the entire tenure of former Gov. Susana Martinez – according to an Environment Department spokesperson.
“The position and office are critical to making New Mexicans whole when our air, water and wildlife habitats are damaged by hazardous contaminants,” Stelnicki said of filling the long vacant position. “We feel very strongly that Ms. Hart Stebbins will effectively lead the state’s charge in holding polluters financially accountable.”
The office can seek damages under the auspices of both state and federal law, and former trustee Jim Baca said the work can differ from what the state Environment Department already does.
“The Environment Department might have already taken (polluters) to task and demanded they do certain things, but the state natural resources trustee would come in on sort of a different tack and try to get them to pay for the permanent damage or try to alleviate some of the really egregious things that have happened,” he said.
Hart Stebbins said she would decline her commission salary for any period during which she has both county and state roles.