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Rio Rancho councilor wants to censure mayor

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A Rio Rancho city councilor wants to publicly reprimand Mayor Tom Swisstack for “illegally” asking legislators to seek funds for a park suitable for kids with disabilities.

Councilor Lonnie Clayton’s resolution to censure the mayor is on the agenda for Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

It says the mayor had no authority to ask legislators to request capital funds for the park project on behalf of the city because it was removed from the list of priorities the council unanimously approved and sent to Santa Fe.

“The mayor has done something illegally and we’re making it known publicly that he’s done something illegally,” Clayton said.

The resolution claims Swisstack’s request may negatively affect the city’s chances of getting funding for the council-approved priorities.

Other than being a strong reprimand that remains in the public record, the censure would carry no legal consequences for the mayor, said acting city manager Jim Babin, who has also been the city attorney.

Babin said in an email that it would be up to the councilors to decide whether the facts demonstrate the claim that Swisstack’s actions violated the city charter.

The mayor defended his action, saying that as an elected official he has a responsibility to the whole community, many of whom have asked for his support for the park project.

“I felt a moral and ethical responsibility since we have a governor who has been extremely supportive and I truly appreciate her support for this park for special-needs people,” Swisstack said, adding that he had no intention of undermining the city’s other funding requests.

Legislators Sen. John Sapien R-Corrales, Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho and Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, whose capital outlay requests contain the item $951,703 for the “all inclusive park,” say they were unaware that the project was not on the council-approved list. All said they personally supported the park’s purpose.

“This park is all about kids with disabilities,” Sapien said.

Councilors Mark Scott and Chuck Wilkins, who have said they support the park concept but believe the city’s infrastructure needs are more critical, on Friday said they were deeply upset by the mayor’s action.

“I was shocked to find that the mayor deliberately submitted a fraudulent capital request to the state and that it’s in direct opposition to what the governing body voted unanimously for,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins said he learned about Swisstack’s approach to legislators when he visited the Legislature on “I Love Rio Rancho Day” on Feb. 14.

The city has estimated the park would cost $2.5 million.

Last year, Gov. Susana Martinez appropriated more than $1.4 million for the park project. The money came from the unspent balance of severance tax bond funds allocated a few years ago to eight projects statewide.

Rio Rancho councilors considered the city’s capital outlay requests at a meeting on Sept. 26. A list proposed by Babin contained six items, including $900,000 for the park project. After discussion, councilors voted 5-0 to approve an alternative list that prioritized water infrastructure and public safety items but omitted the park project. Councilor Patty Thomas left the meeting before the vote.

The council last voted to censure its top elected official in 2007, when they censured former Mayor Kevin Jackson amid allegations that he misspent city funds.
— This article appeared on page 23 of the Albuquerque Journal