In a long night of notable – and sometimes controversial – decisions like repealing Albuquerque’s plastic bag ban, the tensest moments during the City Council’s most recent meeting actually came during what might ordinarily have been an innocuous agenda item: confirmation of the city clerk.
Clerk Ethan Watson’s reconfirmation hearing Monday felt much like a cross-examination, with Councilors Dan Lewis and Louie Sanchez airing many grievances about how Watson’s office handled the 2021 election.
The council ultimately voted 7-2 to keep Watson, an appointee of Mayor Tim Keller, on the job – but not until after Lewis and Sanchez asked a litany of questions challenging Watson’s impartiality in administering the city’s taxpayer-funded public campaign finance system last year. Lewis focused on Watson’s high-profile move to reject mayoral candidate Manuel Gonzales’ application for the money on the grounds he’d submitted fraudulent documentation, questioning if he’d applied the same scrutiny to Keller’s campaign.
A state judge ultimately upheld Watson’s decision, but had initially ruled that Watson denied Gonzales due process. Lewis at one point asked Watson “how we can trust you moving forward in future elections?”
Sanchez, meanwhile, claimed his own 2021 council campaign was treated unfairly.
Watson defended his work during the election, saying he followed the City Charter and ran the public campaign financing program the same way his predecessors had, rejecting the notion he was doing Keller’s bidding.
“I can’t think of a single decision I’ve ever discussed with the mayor,” he said.
Lewis and Sanchez were the only two votes against Watson’s confirmation, however. Several other councilors – including Renee Grout and Tammy Fiebelkorn, who participated in the city’s public financing program as candidates last fall and said they had a good experience with Watson’s office – gave him a positive review. Councilor Klarissa Peña said Watson’s office was “incredible” during the election and said the scrutiny he faced during the confirmation hearing made her “uncomfortable” because nobody is perfect.
“We’re all flawed individuals; we come out flawed,” she said.
Watson’s hearing occurred against the backdrop of a dispute over the council’s confirmation authority. While Keller agreed that the City Charter requires the council to reconfirm existing appointees Watson and City Attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr., disagreement exists over whether the council gets to reconfirm other top Keller appointees, including the chief administrative officer and police chief, after Keller started his second term.
The mayor has renominated those positions to the council, too, but forwarded them as a package deal with the expectation that the council would not conduct hearings and votes on each individual but rather make a decision on the team as a whole. One of those nominees, CAO Sarita Nair, announced Friday she would leave the city in late April.
Those nominations are set to go before the council on March 21.
INTO THE WEEDS: The City Council also on Monday voted to update its own ordinances to align with the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana. That included repealing a local law making marijuana possession a civil infraction punishable with a $25 fine, as well as clarifying it is not a crime to possess paraphernalia for cannabis use.
The council, however, postponed a vote on a related amendment to its Clean Indoor Air Ordinance, which includes language expressly prohibiting open cannabis use in public spaces except in designated cannabis consumption areas.
Councilor Pat Davis, who works with cannabis companies as a consultant, addressed concerns that he should recuse himself from voting on marijuana-related bills. He announced he would sit out the debate over the clean air update, saying he believes “some of the companies I work with would have an opinion on this matter.” However, he participated in the rest of the slate, saying marijuana updates to the city’s criminal code are not a conflict since they don’t “impact anyone’s financial interest.”
TECH TROUBLES: It’s been two years since the pandemic pushed the Albuquerque City Council into virtual meetings, but the technical problems persist. After he and Sanchez missed part of Monday’s action due to glitches, Davis quipped “Councilor Sanchez and I may have to reconsider the city’s lowest bidder policy (for buying) computers later.”
It should not be a problem much longer, however: Councilors will begin meeting in-person again March 21, and aim to welcome the public back to the chambers in April.
Jessica Dyer: firstname.lastname@example.org