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A newly elected Albuquerque city councilor says he should not have to wait another month to join the city’s legislative panel, arguing that his recent victory over an appointed – rather than elected – incumbent means he is now the district’s rightful representative.
Louie Sanchez is publicly urging City Clerk Ethan Watson to swear him in immediately so that he can participate in the council’s Dec. 6 meeting, where scheduled votes include a major infrastructure spending package.
Watson, however, contends that the recent election was intended to fill four-year council terms that start Jan. 1, saying he has made that clear to Sanchez in writing.
Both Watson and Sanchez are making their own case using different provisions in the City Charter.
Sanchez, an insurance agency owner and retired police officer, defeated current District 1 Councilor Lan Sena in the Nov. 2 election. According to the City Charter, councilor terms “shall begin on January 1 following the candidate’s election and shall be four years or until a successor is duly elected and qualified.”
But Sanchez and his attorney argue that the normal timeline does not apply in his case. They cite a separate section of the City Charter they say provides for Sanchez to take office now since Sena is serving in an appointed capacity. Mayor Tim Keller in March 2020 picked Sena to fill a vacancy created when Ken Sanchez died in the middle of his term.
The City Charter says such vacancy appointments made by the mayor are effective until the next regular election “at which time a person shall be elected to fill the remaining unexpired term, if any.”
Ken Sanchez’s term would have run through Dec. 31. Louie Sanchez (no relation) contends he should be the one to serve that month.
“According to the rule of law, I should be in office,” he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
Thomas Grover, an attorney representing Sanchez, said he began broaching the issue with Watson about two weeks ago. He said Watson answered an initial message by citing the charter provision identifying the Jan. 1 council term start date, but that the clerk has not responded to a more recent message Grover sent referencing the charter’s vacancy appointment language.
“What he relied on had to do with a typical candidate A running against (typical) incumbent B. That’s not the case (because of Sena’s appointment),” Grover said.
The attorney said he and Sanchez will consider filing a court petition, if needed.
But in a statement to the Journal, Watson provided multiple reasons why he could not swear in Sanchez now.
“The City Clerk has made clear in correspondence with Councilor-elect Sanchez that the term begins on January 1, pursuant to state law,” Watson wrote, citing the New Mexico Local Election Act that empowered local governments to set terms for elected officials.
He also noted the County Clerk’s Election proclamation that “made clear that that term was four years, not more than four years,” and that he cannot swear in any new councilors because the secretary of state has not yet issued a “certificate of election” to any Albuquerque candidates who won on Nov. 2.
Sena, meanwhile, says she has no plans to step aside before year’s end.
“When I signed up for this job, it was to fulfill the vacancy and the term of our late Councilor Ken Sanchez, and his term would have ended on the 31st of December,” she said.
The Albuquerque City Council has two more scheduled meetings this calendar year, including a session Monday that could include some significant votes.
The council is expected to decide whether to issue $110 million in new gross receipts tax bonds for a range of capital projects around the city. Sena and Keller have expressed support for the proposal, which Councilors Brook Bassan and Klarissa Peña are sponsoring. But passage would require support from a super-majority – seven of nine councilors – and two councilors already have spoken out against the proposal. Councilors Isaac Benton and Pat Davis have argued the bill’s proponents are rushing a vote before a major council transition. Four current councilors will be gone at year’s end having either lost the Nov. 2 election or decided not to run again.
Sena is also co-sponsoring a bill slated for a Monday vote that would require union involvement in major city construction projects through the use of project labor agreements.
Louie Sanchez said if he succeeds in taking office prior to Monday’s meeting, he would support delaying a vote on the bonds, adding that the incoming councilors should be involved in such significant actions.
“This is a great deal of money,” he said. “It’s a big decision, and it’s a decision that shouldn’t be rushed.”