Webber is the choice for mayor - Albuquerque Journal

Webber is the choice for mayor

The remains of the Soldiers’ Monument on the Santa Fe Plaza that protestors pulled down in October 2020. The obelisk’s destruction has become an issue in the 2021 mayoral campaign. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Journal North endorses incumbent Alan Webber in the three-way race for Santa Fe mayor.

Webber has the broadest and most forward-thinking view for Santa Fe among the candidates, on issues ranging from water planning and the environment to housing.

But this endorsement isn’t an easy one to make. Webber – a successful businessman who is smart and affable and with politics firmly in the progressive camp – has made some noteworthy and serious missteps.

Most recently, Webber’s reelection effort has engaged in campaign misbehavior that the experienced political professionals involved surely know crossed the line.

His election materials have tried to portray the mayor as somehow a victim/target of dark Trumpian MAGA forces, the better to fire up Santa Fe’s liberal majority; issued a flyer that created the false impression that a newspaper editorial had blasted one of his opponents; and tried to associate his campaign with what was really just a fun city government park event.

More seriously, Webber’s progressive administration has taken a major non-progressive turn by making city government less transparent. It’s surprising because Webber personally is always ready to talk and make himself accessible to reporters.

For at least his first two years in office, Webber’s staff either couldn’t figure out or willfully refused to follow the state’s public records law – claiming, for instance, it had no record of police overtime pay. He has put a dark blanket over the city’s process for accepting and awarding bids for goods and services, so the public sees nothing about what’s been offered until after a contract has been awarded. And Webber and company have misleadingly blamed state government’s procurement code for this secrecy. New Mexico cities like Santa Fe can establish their own contracting rules.

Webber’s crew also has fought, with success, to keep secret the police department’s internal investigations of complaints against or use of force by officers. Albuquerque – operating under the same state public records law – makes IA documents public except for interview transcripts. City Hall even to tried to hide the names of people appointed to serve on a committee on street lights.

But Webber has come through as the city’s first “strong mayor” in some key areas.

He gets good marks for leading Santa Fe’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic within the boundaries of what a local government can do. He backed the mask mandates imposed by the city governing body. To stanch spread of the coronavirus on the streets, the city found rooms for the homeless in the old dorms at the former Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus. Santa Fe also spent $2 million to help a nonprofit acquire the 123-unit Santa Fe Suites hotel to provide a variety of affordable housing options, including some units for homeless clients. Others without shelter were placed in local motels with the city’s help, a goodwill effort that was marred by two homicides at one of them. Water-shutoffs were halted as people lost work, and Santa Fe appears to have done a good job of getting federal COVID-19 relief dollars to those who needed them.

One caveat on homeless issues, though – Webber and the City Council seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the impact the homeless shelter on Cerrillos Road has on neighboring residents and businesses and spreading out into the rest of Midtown Santa Fe. Somehow the governing body believes the issue can be solved by tiny measures like widening sidewalks to keep people from hanging out in one particular road. City government needs to find a new sheltering option offering a lot more services to those in need 24-7, bringing the entire community into what should be a shared responsibility and giving the people who live and run businesses near Harrison Road some relief.

While we had issues with Webber’s push to permit construction and rental of casitas on single-family lots by absentee landlords, Webber deserves credit for encouraging new apartment development to fight Santa Fe’s chronic housing shortage. There can be quibbling about the details of the new rental-unit complexes – how they look, how they impact traffic, whether a particular building fits a particular site – but there should be no argument about the need to loosen up Santa Fe’s tight and way too expensive housing market. City Hall says that all told, 4,000 housing units are in the pipeline. Who knows where the sweet spot is – how many units are needed and how many are too much – and there are those who complain about excess growth and strain on public resources. But Santa Fe in fact does have a workforce, and it’s better economically, more environmentally sound and more conducive to producing a diverse community when the workforce lives here instead of commuting from Rio Rancho and other outlying communities. Fewer and fewer people who work in Santa Fe live here these days.

The Webber administration also has a good record on green issues, with the start of conversion of the city fleet to electric vehicles and nine city facilities to renewable energy. Plans to trade wastewater effluent for more San Juan-Chama water from the Rio Grande are shoring up the city water supply long-term.

Then there’s what sadly has become, apparently, the single biggest issue of the mayoral campaign – demolition by protesters of the Soldier’s Monument obelisk on the Plaza on Indigenous Peoples Day 2020 and controversy over other historical monuments, like the statue of conquistador Don Diego de Vargas that was removed by Webber as a safety measure and then ended up ignominiously stored in someone’s backyard.

It’s a topic that has pushed open a raw wound among many native Santa Feans, for whom the obelisk was an important part of tradition and history.

Webber came out in favor of removal of the obelisk during the nationwide racial reckoning after George Floyd’s 2020 killing in police custody. The obelisk primarily commemorated Civil War soldiers, but also had a panel that celebrated the defeat of “savage” Indians before the racist adjective savage was chiseled out years ago. One late-night city effort to take the structure down to preempt possible destruction failed.

We assert that Webber’s biggest mistake on this issue was failure to initiate a community discussion, or any action at all, about controversial monuments in the months before the obelisk was destroyed, continuing decades of official dilly-dallying over the obelisk’s racist panel. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that, without some kind of movement on the controversy, things could come to a head on Indigenous Peoples Day. After the obelisk was pulled down, Webber condemned the vandalism.

The mayor now faces withering criticism from political opponents and others because his police department withdrew rather than resist the monument’s destruction amid growing mayhem on the Plaza that day a year ago. But to us, the decision for officers to pull back was a legitimate call, made in the heat of the moment and with the prospect of violence in the air.

In contrast, back in 2017, the Santa Fe police showed up in force on Fiesta weekend to oversee the annual protest by Native Americans against the now-defunct Entrada pageant that reenacted De Vargas’ reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692, 12 years after the Pueblo Revolt. The infamous right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder-by-vehicle of a counterprotester had taken place only weeks before. Officers were on rooftops around the Plaza with guns. The police tried to wrangle protesters into “free-speech zones” away from the Entrada. There were arrests of several nonviolent, nondestructive protesters. The police department subsequently was criticized for what was seen as a heavy-handed show of force.

The police used the opposite tack on Indigenous Peoples Day 2020, and the backlash has been even worse – a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t result.

Now, the mayoral campaign seems to largely center on whether Webber, not a native Santa Fean, and his police department should have stepped up to protect the obelisk or, more broadly, whether he has disrespected traditional Santa Fe culture.

We’d argue that the issues around monuments that commemorate figures from New Mexico’s complicated past shouldn’t be boiled down to one decision on one day. And that the election for mayor should be about more than this single point of dispute.

Reconciliation will take a lot of effort from all sides moving forward. We support Webber’s reelection as part of that future, while hoping his City Hall can open up and move beyond its reflexive anti-transparency attitude and in general become more responsive. Let’s all hope Webber can find a way to heal the divisions that are now so evident in our community.

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