Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Rio Rancho Mayor Tom Swisstack took office six years ago at a moment when the city was reeling from a couple of highly publicized embarrassments and the economy was turning shaky.
The previous mayor, Kevin Jackson, had resigned over allegations of misuse of a city credit card, the Attorney General found the governing body violated the state open meetings law, and the housing market that had boosted city tax revenues was slumping.
Swisstack, whose resumé included stints as Sandoval County commissioner, state legislator and Rio Rancho mayor in the mid-1990s, stepped into the breach in March 2008 with an ambitious program to regain public confidence in city government. He served the remainder of Jackson’s term and was re-elected to another four-year term in 2010.
Swisstack announced in September that he would not seek re-election. Now, as he prepares to hand over the reins to whoever wins Tuesday’s runoff election between Gregg Hull and Mike Williams, Swisstack says he’s glad he put his hat in the ring.
“I’ve not regretted ever serving the city of Rio Rancho or Sandoval County as an elected official,” the 67-year-old civic leader said.
The Journal sat down with Swisstack this week to review his thoughts about his time as mayor.
Question: What were some of the challenges the city faced when you came into office in 2008?
Swisstack: “Public dissatisfaction with the openness of city government. There was a perception that the leadership was not available to the community, and there were the ups and downs of the mayor’s office.” He referred to Jackson’s resignation in July 2007 over the credit card issue.
That situation brought discredit to the overall system in Rio Rancho which he heard about at the state level as House Representative for District 60.
As a result, he said, a group of Rio Rancho citizens and business people asked him if he would consider running again for mayor. He was previously mayor from 1994 to 1998.
Question: What were some of the goals you had when you came into office?
Swisstack: “To get clarity on what city projects would be, and to deal with fiscal constraints. I knew the economy was changing and revenues weren’t going to be like they were in 2005 through 2007. I put teams together to engage the public in looking at finance, economic development, administration, infrastructure, public safety and development. With that input, we updated the strategic plan developed in the 1990s.”
He believes that process has paid dividends such as the Central New Mexico Community College and University of New Mexico campuses, two hospitals and other businesses.
Question: What has happened in Rio Rancho in the last six years that are you most proud of?
Swisstack: “The non-tangible things, like having the right people in the right positions at the right time.”
He referred to former staffers, James Jimenez, Olivia Padilla Jackson, John Castillo and current Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department Director Jay Hart.
“Those leaders brought their departments together. They built credibility that the city was responsive.”
(Swisstack picked Jimenez as city manager in August 2008. He was the city’s finance director during Swisstack’s first term as mayor and was then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s chief of staff from 2006 to mid-2008. Jimenez retired involuntarily in July 2012 after disputes with some new city councilors.
Padilla-Jackson, another former Richardson staffer, took over as finance director in January 2010, replacing Dick Kristof who retired. Padilla-Jackson left Rio Rancho to become deputy finance director for the city of Albuquerque last fall. Castillo had retired as municipal development director for Albuquerque and came to do the equivalent job for Rio Rancho in 2009. He retired again last year. Hart also came to Rio Rancho in 2009 from a similar position in Albuquerque.)
Question: What have been the greatest challenges as mayor?
Swisstack: “Balancing capital needs like roads, waterlines, water and economic development with quality-of-life issues. It almost seems that there has been a shift at the policy level (locally) to put those things in competition. If you’re selling a community, you’re selling a holistic approach. Fire and safety and economic development are important, but people also move to a community for parks, bike trails and school systems. Those things are equally important as capital needs.”
Question: Can you comment on your working relationship with the council?
Swisstack: “There have been challenges between the present governing body and myself over the last couple of years, but the conflict was not all negative. … There’s a sense that we’ve respected each other at least. There really wasn’t as much conflict as maybe the perception was.”
Question: Has it been difficult to measure up to the concept of “full time” mayor as defined by a City Charter change in 2012?
Swisstack: “I never thought I wasn’t a full time mayor … Part of my own management style is never to lose contact with people and to never forget who put you where you were and what your responsibility is. The only way that works for me is being there.”
Swisstack is also deputy Bernalillo County manager of public safety. Although the Rio Rancho mayor does not vote on policy except to break a tie and the city manager runs daily operations, the job is a seven-day a week responsibility, definitely not just being a figurehead, he said.
Question: Some voters have raised concerns about the influence of the Rio Rancho Tea Party on the council; can you comment?
Swisstack: “There are cyclical changes in philosophies in most communities. So, what I’ve learned from 25 years in public office is that what might be tea party at this point, in two or four years might be a more moderate approach. In my terms there have been both moderate and conservative approaches. Maybe this is the first time that there seems to be more of a homogenous philosophy, but eventually the public will start to address that, because that’s not the makeup of the public.”
Question: What advice would you give to the new mayor and council going forward?
Swisstack: “My advice to the governing body is, though it’s easy to go to a certain segment of our society, the truth is they represent all people, whether it’s the business community, schools, families, or A Park Above special-needs people.”
Question: What are your plans for the future?
Swisstack: “I never close any doors. I never do things just for the sake of doing things, I look at what I can make a difference at. For about 90 days, I plan to take a step back and re-evaluate where I might be able to continue making a difference.”