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Commissioner lobs Santolina ethics allegations

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley accused the Santolina development team on Wednesday of skirting the county ethics code by donating to a political action committee involved in the campaign for an open County Commission seat.

She asked County Attorney Ken Martinez to investigate the donations, and he said the county’s compliance office will examine the allegations, as it would any other complaint.

The Santolina development team, in turn, said it’s confident the PAC activity is legal.

The county Code of Conduct prohibits people with business before the County Commission from donating $1,000 or more to candidates.

At issue in this case, however, is a series of donations exceeding that amount to a political action committee – from people at firms involved in the Santolina development, which is seeking county approval for tax incentives and land-use plans.

The PAC, which calls itself “New Mexicans for New Mexico,” has raised about $25,000 and campaigned against Adrián Pedroza, a County Commission candidate who’s been critical of Santolina.

The committee is supporting both of Pedroza’s opponents in the June 7 primary election, Robert Chavez and Steven Michael Quezada. All three are Democrats, as is O’Malley.

The PAC’s donations include $5,000 from Jeffrey Garrett, president of the development company serving as asset manager for the Santolina project.

In a written statement, the Santolina development team said the group is “confident the PAC is operating pursuant to county ordinance. It is unfortunate that Commissioner O’Malley is using her position as a Bernalillo County commissioner to influence the District 2 election.”

The Santolina team added that O’Malley is “promoting her handpicked candidate” while the PAC supports candidates who “are promoting jobs for District 2.”

O’Malley, for her part, called the PAC a front group for Santolina and a “thinly veiled attempt to circumvent our strong ethics laws in order to buy influence for their sprawl development.”

The treasurer for New Mexicans for New Mexico didn’t immediately respond to O’Malley’s comments.

The Santolina Master Plan – a framework for growth covering 22 square miles of the West Mesa – won approval on a 3-2 vote of the County Commission last year. O’Malley voted against it.

A key supporter of the plan, Commissioner Art De La Cruz, is stepping down at the end of this year because of term limits.

And the Santolina development is still seeking county approval for land-use plans for the area and a proposal to divert a share of the future tax revenue generated there to reimburse the developer for building roads and other infrastructure.

De La Cruz faced calls last year to recuse himself from voting on Santolina because he had written an opinion column in favor of it. Critics said the column showed he wasn’t objective, but he continued to vote on the project anyway.

It’s unclear whether O’Malley will face a similar request to abstain. Martinez, the county attorney, said he would evaluate the issue if someone raises the question.