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‘Fresh energy and new eyes’ at City Hall

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez, right, takes the oath of office as a Santa Fe city councilor while her husband Bobby tries to keep control of their 16-month-old son Oliver. First Judicial District Court Judge Bryan Biedscheid, left, administered the oath. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

The Santa Fe City Council got about 64 years younger and, for the first time in its history, is made up of a female majority after two new councilors were sworn in during a New Year’s Day ceremony at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

Along with veteran councilors Chris Rivera and Renee Villarreal, who were unchallenged in last November’s election, Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez and Michael J. Garcia took the oath of office on the morning of what Mayor Alan Webber described as both a celebratory and a solemn day.

The swearing-in ceremony was a uniquely American celebration, the mayor said – a celebration of democracy, the right to vote and the orderly transition of elected officials. He addressed an audience of about 180 people, some of them undoubtedly still feeling the effects of New Year’s revelry.

“There’s nothing more important than people stepping up,” he said, with a nod to all who participated in the democratic process.

And, indeed, the event was celebratory, with festive music provided by Mariachi Conquistador and Mariachi Encanto, as well a performance by Tesuque Pueblo’s colorful Future Generation dancers.

But it was a solemn day, too, the mayor said, when contemplating the amount of work that lies ahead – and because the city was saying goodbye to councilors Mike Harris and Peter Ives, who both chose not to run for reelection.

Council service ‘a joy’

In a short speech, Ives, who served two four-year terms on the council, began by saying “there is no greater joy” than serving one’s community and concluded by somewhat somberly saying that he will keep the memories of serving on the council close to his heart.

In between, Ives predicted that the new year would be a “vision year” and not just because it was 2020. He said Santa Fe was at a crossroads when it came to such issues as sustainability, preserving the city’s water resources and “building a community,” an apparent reference to the city’s housing shortage, which some city leaders have described as a “crisis.”

Michael J. Garcia took the oath of office as District 2 Santa Fe city councilor during a New Year’s Day ceremony at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. Santa Fe Magistrate Judge George Anaya Jr. administered the oath as Garcia’s wife, Elisha, and their two daughters, Elisea and Eliana, stood by. ( T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

Garcia, who is replacing Ives on the council to represent the eastside District 2, picked up on that theme when the time came for him to address the audience. The city is at a crossroads on many fronts, he said.

“We need to ensure we have a place for everybody in Santa Fe,” he said of Santa Fe’s housing situation, which is especially short of affordable housing.

After disclosing that, as a younger man, and between episodes of “Bevis and Butthead,” he used to turn to the local government access channel to watch City Council meetings, the 40-year-old Garcia said the time had come for a constituent services app to help make city government more accessible to constituents.

He is also a proponent of community policing, he said, and without formally offering any resolutions for the new year – or ordinances, for that matter – he said Santa Fe needed to invest in its future by helping local businesses grow.

After leading the crowd in a somewhat tempered call and response cheer, with him calling “Santa” and the crowd responding “Fe,” Garcia concluded his remarks on an optimistic note.

“Let’s make some great stuff happen and let’s work for a better future for everybody,” he said.

Cassutt-Sanchez, a 34-year-old Santa Fe native who left her home town to attend college and only returned about a year ago, was more subdued.

She said she knew she wanted to serve her community when she returned to the city, but wasn’t sure how. But as someone who has worked in health and wellness programs, she realized that “all policy is health policy” and that everything is connected, and set out to apply that political philosophy as a city councilor.

It isn’t about how many housing units are built, she said, it’s about strategically building them to serve the community’s needs.

It isn’t about how many weeds are pulled from the city’s medians, it’s about creating community spaces, she added.

And it isn’t about how many acre-feet of water Santa Fe has access to, it’s about preserving water resources for “my screaming child and his children,” she said, making light of her 16-month-old son Oliver, who was escorted from the room more than once due to his vocalizations.

Cassutt-Sanchez joins Villarreal, Signe Lindell, Carol Romero-Wirth and JoAnne Vigil Coppler – the latter two elected two years ago – to form a female majority on the eight-member City Council for the first time in the city’s history.

‘Fresh energy’

In an interview after the ceremony, Mayor Webber said he was sorry to see Ives and Harris go, but the new councilors would bring “fresh energy and new eyes” to matters facing the city.

He said during a two-day orientation session, “both came with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of questions. I was impressed with their energy and engagement.”

The orientation for incoming councilors is something new, made possible by a change in state law that prompted municipal elections to be held in November. In the past, city elections were held in March and the victors had only about a week before they were sworn in.

Now, new councilors have nearly two months to prepare for serving in their new positions.

The mayor said the newcomers will bring more than an injection of young blood to the City Council.

“Each of them brings with them their core interests,” he said, noting Cassutt-Sanchez’s background in health policy and Garcia’s as a community organizer for AmeriCorps VISTA. “It’s always nice when people come into the council and they have core interests they can draw upon.”

Villarreal, who, with the addition of Cassutt-Sanchez and Garcia, jumps from the youngest member of the council to the third youngest, said the newcomers will provide the council with a more youthful perspective.

“With Jamie, especially as a young mother, having that perspective is valuable,” she said. “And Michael through his work with AmeriCorps VISTA brings the perspective of service in the community. He knows the importance of service, and the need to involve the community in decision-making and creating policy.”

Councilor Harris, who is being replaced by Cassutt-Sanchez as representative of south-central District 4, was asked what words of wisdom he had for the new councilors.

“They’ll need to do their homework,” he said, adding that they’ll get some help from their colleagues. “Fortunately, they are working with a very experienced group of people.”

Now in his third term, Councilor Rivera assumes status as the most experienced member of the City Council.

Asked what advice he had for the newcomers, Rivera said, “Just be patient. The wheels of government turn slowly. Sometimes it takes a while for people to figure that out.”

Councilor Vigil Coppler was asked the same question.

“I guess I would say the first piece of advice I would give them is to clear their schedules,” she said, reinforcing the mayor’s promise that they had a lot of work ahead of them. “Then I would say they should make sure they read the materials before the meeting. They should also be independent and not be afraid to speak out about any issue.”

When asked, Vigil Coppler was standing with Anna Hansen, chairwoman of the Santa Fe County Commission.

“Read the material. That’s No. 1 for me. It makes for better discussion,” said Hansen, who has served three years on the county commission and announced last week that she will seek a second term in the 2020 elections.

Hansen said it was also important for elected officials to “show up for their constituents,” be accessible to them and to return phone calls.

Her last piece of advice?

“Enjoy it,” she said. “It’s a great gift to be an elected official.”

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