In Bernalillo County government, the buck stops at the desk of County Manager Julie Morgas Baca, at least on paper.
The five elected county commissioners hired Morgas Baca in September 2015 to run the county’s day-to-day operations. If they’re dissatisfied, the commissioners can terminate her contract or place her on paid administrative leave.
It’s the same governmental structure used in other New Mexico counties. In some areas, county managers serve for decades. In others, only until the next election of county commissioners. It takes just a narrow majority of county commissioners to oust any county manager, at any time.
The commission-manager structure has pros and cons. County managers have no term limits, enabling long-term planning and implementation of policies. An unelected county manager also has a degree of independence and impartiality. But without majority support from the governing body, she or he can quickly be rendered powerless and ineffectual.
Two Albuquerque city councilors have suggested gutting the mayor’s powers and reverting to a structure similar to the county commission-manager system — a system Albuquerque jettisoned nearly 50 years ago.
Councilors Louie Sanchez and Renee Grout are co-sponsoring 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, including powers to appoint the police chief and other department directors.
The City Council voted 9-0 last Monday to defer action until June 5. At least six of the nine city councilors must agree to put the measure on the Nov. 7 local election ballot. It would then be up to city voters to decide.
Sanchez and Grout contend electing a new mayor every four to eight years disrupts progress. But shouldn’t city voters be able to vote on whether they support that “progress” or want the city to go in a different direction?
Supporters also say cities with “weak mayor” structures — including Las Cruces, Rio Rancho and Roswell — function more efficiently with a council-manager form of government. That’s debatable.
Sanchez and Grout’s legislation would render the mayor as a figurehead of city government “for all ceremonial purposes.” The mayor would preside over City Council meetings and be empowered to vote, but only when there’s an exceptionally rare tie vote.
Mayor Tim Keller’s administration understandably opposes the measure. A mayoral spokeswoman noted the proposal would place all city powers in the hands of a committee and an unelected city manager. Do we really want a city government like that to tackle crime, homelessness and taxes?
The council-manager structure isn’t suited for large cities that can require immediate and decisive action by one individual who is then held accountable by voters.
Think decisions regarding rioting or natural disasters.
The current system also has checks and balances. The nine-member council can veto the mayor’s actions with six votes.
Gutting mayoral power in Albuquerque would have other negative consequences, as Timothy Krebs of the University of New Mexico pointed out in a guest column published Thursday. The political science professor says voter engagement lags in cities with council-manager systems. Among large U.S. cities with the lowest average turnout in mayoral elections, seven of eight have council-manager systems – Austin, Oklahoma City, El Paso, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Fort Worth and Dallas.
“The reason for this has to do with where power is concentrated,” Krebs wrote. “In systems where appointed officials have governing power, the public disengages. In systems where elected officials have it, the public does the opposite.”
Krebs also notes most cities over 500,000 have “strong mayor” systems “beause administrative functions are assigned to a chief administrative officer answerable to the mayor, these systems benefit from technically competent management as well.”
Former Mayor Jim Baca says reverting to a council-manager form of government would be a giant step backward. And he’s correct.
“City Councilors Renee Grout and Louis Sanchez want to turn Albuquerque City government into a clone of Bernalillo County where no one is in charge,” Baca told the Journal. “The county just spent $100 million on a new office building and there was no one to hold responsible for the cost overruns.”
Albuquerque has had a mayor-council government since 1974 when voters by a “runaway” 19,458-to-5,246 tally approved Proposition 3 on Feb. 26, 1974, establishing a full-time paid mayor as the city’s chief executive, and a part-time, districted nine-member City Council as the city’s legislative body. The proposition, which passed in all 63 precincts, was endorsed by a wide range of organizations and community leaders. The city had been governed by an at-large City Commission since 1917.
“(T)he charter election and its outcome mark the beginning of a new and exciting era in Albuquerque municipal government,” stated the Journal editorial of Feb. 28, 1974. “Just how severe the changes may be will be determined largely by the character and qualifications of those to be elected to serve as mayor, the city’s chief executive office, and those who will fill the nine districted council seats to exercise municipal legislative authority and direct municipal policy.”
How true all that turned out to be. Character counts.
The last thing Albuquerque needs now is to neuter the only citywide elected office and go with leadership by committee and an unelected bureaucrat. At least four of the nine current city councilors need to vote against this.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.