South Valley native Jessica Hernandez will become the first woman to serve as City Hall’s top attorney when she reports for work next week.
Hernandez — deputy chief of staff and general counsel for Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican — won unanimous confirmation from the City Council late Monday.
Mayor Richard Berry had nominated her earlier this month. But councilors questioned her repeatedly Monday about where her loyalty would lie — with the administration or council.
Hernandez seemed to assuage their concern. She said she’s been frank with the mayor and others about how she sees the role: that she must deliver the best legal advice she can to Albuquerque’s elected leaders, regardless of which branch they serve in.
“I believe this role does require a certain amount of independence from the administration,” Hernandez said.
Albuquerque city offices are nonpartisan, meaning party affiliation doesn’t appear on the ballot. But the mayor is a Republican, and Democrats hold a 5-4 edge on the council.
Hernandez said that when there’s disagreement, she will provide clear legal analysis and allow the policy-makers to decide.
Hernandez, who’s 34, moved through the University of New Mexico quickly and graduated in the Top 10 of her law-school class at age 21. She was the youngest member of the state bar for three consecutive years after graduation.
The City Charter offers unusual protection for the city attorney. Most department heads serve at the pleasure of the mayor and can be hired and fired at will.
But under the charter, the mayor can hire the city attorney only after an open, competitive process and approval from two-thirds of the City Council.
The city attorney is hard to fire, too. Hernandez cannot be removed before the end of Berry’s term — which ends in November 2017 — unless the city’s director of audits and investigations finds that there’s cause for dismissal; the mayor approves of the termination; and two-thirds of the council agrees.
Hernandez has experience in both private practice and in government. Before joining the Martinez administration, she worked at the Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin and Robb law firm in Albuquerque.
She handled defense litigation in state and federal court in products and premises liability, personal injury and wrongful death, medical malpractice and employment law.