A pair of city councilors are floating a plan that could gut mayoral power in Albuquerque.
Councilors Louie Sanchez and Renee Grout are proposing a City Charter amendment that would fold the mayor into the city council and transfer most of the mayor’s current executive duties to a council-chosen city manager. Under legislation they plan to file this week, a professional city manager — rather than the mayor — would appoint and oversee the police chief and other department directors, formulate the city’s annual operating budget and organize the city’s executive branch.
Such a restructuring is ultimately up to Albuquerque voters, and the Sanchez/Grout legislation specifically seeks to the charter amendment on this fall’s ballot.
Sanchez said several other cities in the region use the proposed council-manager form of government — sometimes called a “weak mayor” structure — including Rio Rancho and Las Cruces, which he holds up as examples of well-functioning municipalities.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for our citizens to chime in make Albuquerque (be) a little more efficient, more stable, more fiscally responsible and transparent over time,” he said.
At least six of nine city councilors must agree to put the issue on the ballot.
If they do and voters approve it, Sanchez said the changes would not take effect until after the next mayoral election, which is slated for 2025.
According to a draft of the legislation provided to the Journal, the mayor would “be recognized as the head of the City government for all ceremonial purposes” and preside over council meetings, but have no administrative duties and vote at council meetings only in the event of a tie. Ties are exceptionally rare for the Albuquerque City Council and only occur if at least one of nine members is absent or recuses themselves from a vote.
While that would seem to give the mayor — Albuquerque’s only citywide elected official — less voice than councilors chosen at the district level, Sanchez disputes the notion that the system would sideline the mayor, saying he or she could still propose legislation and policy. Plus, Sanchez said, the council could work to expand membership in the future so that there are an even number of councilors, as is the case in Rio Rancho and Las Cruces.
“He would still bring a lot to the table,” Sanchez said of the mayor in a council-manager structure. “There is a lot of things that every one of the other mayors (in this form of government) bring to the table, so it’s a very important job.”
While it may not affect current Mayor Tim Keller unless he seeks reelection, his office bashed the proposal Thursday. A spokeswoman —who said Keller was unavailable for a Journal interview — instead sent a written statement calling the idea an “empty threat” from Sanchez, who has long criticized the Keller administration.
“His proposal would turn back the clock 50 years to the dark ages of city government, and is the opposite direction of where American cities are heading,” mayoral spokeswoman Ava Montoya wrote.
Grout said the proposal is not about “one person” like Keller, but rather the city’s overall performance.
She contends the council-manager system would lend more stability to operations, ideally limiting the upheaval that currently occurs when a new mayor takes office. She said new administrations can swap out department leadership and shelve existing programs and initiatives. Grout cited the Rail Trail — a planned multimodal path connecting the Rail Yards and Downtown to other key Albuquerque attractions — as an example. Keller has made it one of his signature initiatives but has noted that its development may span future administrations. Grout said she supports the project and would hate to see it die with a mayoral change.
A council-manager system could allow better continuity on that project and much more, she said.
“I am learning that city government, or government, works very slowly and to get anything done takes forever,” said Grout, now in her second year as a city councilor. “If you’re having to start over again (with a new mayor and new priorities), no wonder we’re not making ground.”
Albuquerque has had a mayor-council government since 1974. For decades prior to that, the city was governed by elected commissioners and a city manager.