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Hull: New Mexico’s mayors are not passing the buck

Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — It cannot be overstated that this pandemic is to be taken seriously and that we, as communities and a state, must work together to beat COVID-19.

The public-health order from the governor is not to be dismissed, and we all must take our personal health and the health of others seriously.

To be commended are our front-line workers who have shown up daily to provide essential services.

New Mexicans should not place them in the uncomfortable position of having to be enforcers of the governor’s public-health order. No essential worker, including police, wants to ask you to wear a face covering, but they are placed in that position when you don’t wear one.

From the onset of COVID-19, local leaders have engaged this fight head-on by educating citizens on social distancing and appropriate hygiene, and working one-on-one with local businesses and constituents. Cities, towns and villages moved rapidly to adopt local heath emergency orders to help with enforcement and compliance with national and state health orders.

It was very surprising and off-putting when the governor wrote in a July 8 op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal that she had “sought partners at every opportunity – and received few” and “local governments and public-safety agencies have passed the buck.”

In local government, there is no passing the buck. Local leaders must deal with these issues head-on and lead in a way we believe best serves our individual communities.

In recent discussions with the governor and her office, significant concern was raised by municipal governments about the enforceability of certain components of the governor’s public-health order. Communities have repeatedly requested information on the legal authority of municipalities to enforce them and even fine and incarcerate citizens for violating such.

Municipal leaders have an obligation to question laws and directives they are asked to enforce.

The most recent request to the governor, from her appointed task force, was on July 2, appealing for an attorney general opinion. On July 3 at 5:03 p.m. via email to the task force, a gubernatorial directive was issued requiring local police to enforce the face-covering provision, but no AG opinion.

On July 7, a mysterious letter from the AG dated July 3 appeared on Twitter, supporting the governor’s stance but falling short of a formal opinion.

On July 8, the Albuquerque Journal published the governor-issued op-ed referencing the AG’s letter. At 9:05 a.m., a copy of the AG letter was supplied to the task force.

The governor in her op-ed took the unprecedented approach of threatening to remove local elected officials from office. It is unclear how she would approach this, but regardless, it is inappropriate.

Local nonpartisan elected officials should not be threatened when they’re merely asking questions.

The governor’s op-ed painted with a broad brush and did a disservice to those on the front line fighting this pandemic. Local leaders are committed to ensuring the health and safety of our communities, and that includes protecting the rights of our citizens from punishments not supported by laws and authority.

(Gregg Hull has been the mayor of Rio Rancho since 2014. A longer version of this letter, signed by 17 other mayors in the state, also appeared in the July 15 issue of the Albuquerque Journal.)