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‘Strong mayor’ plan is debated by City Council

SANTA FE, N.M. — With perhaps a month until decision time, the Santa Fe City Council continued to ruminate Tuesday over how far, or if, to propose amendments to the city’s governing charter to expand the powers of Santa Fe’s mayor.

Several people who attended a special City Council meeting to discuss the subject urged councilors to put a strong-mayor proposal to voters in the municipal election next March. Any charter changes must be approved by city voters.

“The City Council should respect the Charter Review Commission’s recommendation to reform the charter and allow the voters to decide whether change is needed,” Charter Commission Chairman Patricio Serna said, referring to the advisory body that spent much of the year reviewing possible charter changes.

A charter amendment recommended by the Charter Commission would require, among other things, that Santa Fe’s mayor work 40 hours a week with a full-time salary and be prohibited from holding another job, have more hiring and firing powers and be allowed to vote on all matters that come before the governing body. The mayor now votes only when there’s a tie or when more than a simple majority vote is required to decide certain matters.

Councilors are also considering at least three other proposals that expand the mayor’s powers in varying amounts, as well as whether the mayoral election should be subject to a runoff.

Councilor Chris Rivera has most recently introduced a proposal that includes some of the charter commission recommendations but also eliminates the city manager position and caps the mayor’s pay at no more than 10 percent of the city’s highest-paid department director.

Rivera said Tuesday that he actually prefers maintaining the city’s current system but that if a strong mayor proposal goes to voters he wants the plan to be as transparent as possible.

Much of the conversation on Tuesday focused on the role of the city manager in the current system versus a strong mayor system, as well as how much power the mayor should have to hire and fire the city’s top officials.

Several people pointed to the city’s dismal track record of keeping its city managers. There have been about 11 city managers in the past 19 years, with turnover occurring about every 21.5 months.

Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger was among those that expressed concerns. Wurzburger said that while only three of those city managers have been fired, many others left of their own volition because of the threat of being terminated. Some of Santa Fe’s best city managers left the post because of micromanagement by the council and threats by councilors, Wurzburger said.

She added that those tenures may get reviewed in more specificity as the discussion continues.

“Not only do we lose people committed to the job and doing it extremely well but we also cast a climate across the city that ripples all the way through the city from the top to the bottom,” Wurzburger said.

Serna said the Charter Review Commission envisions the city manager as a chief of staff position that runs the city’s day-to-day operations and reports to the mayor, not the City Council.

Santa Fe Mayor David Coss said he “would like to respect the work of the Charter Commission and their 16 public meetings and stick as closely as possible to that” proposal.

City legal officials said the council has until its Dec. 11 meeting to approve a resolution to put changes on the ballot for the March 2014 election.

Councilors tentatively agreed to vote on the strong mayor proposal at the council’s Nov. 15 meeting and to review a slew of other less controversial proposals on Oct. 30.