Change is coming to City Hall.
When the municipal election rolls around March 6, voters will fill half of the seats on the eight-member Santa Fe City Council — and will elect at least three new members. Whether those choices are good, bad or business as usual, only time will tell.
In any case, Santa Fe’s political leadership is about to get an infusion of fresh blood.
“It’s always good to get a new perspective,” said Councilor Rosemary Romero, who isn’t seeking re-election.
Yet some question the ability of the current crop of council hopefuls to effect any real or immediate difference at the city.
“I just don’t see the engine for change in this set of candidates as they’ve defined their campaigns,” former Councilor Karen Heldmeyer said.
“I think really it’s an unknown,” said departing Councilor Miguel Chavez. “We don’t know right now because we haven’t seen (a new council) in action yet.”
“The only hope I would have,” Chavez added, “is that the council, the new members along with the current members, will operate in a more open fashion as we move forward.”
Three incumbents — Romero, Chavez and Councilor Matthew Ortiz — are not seeking re-election this year. Ortiz and Romero made their own decisions to step down, while council-approved redistricting moved Chavez out of southwest Santa Fe’s District 3, where he’d been elected three times. Patti Bushee — the most-veteran councilor — is the only incumbent on the ballot.
The last time the council welcomed so many new faces was in 2006. That year, Councilors Chris Calvert and Carmichael Dominguez won open seats and Ron Trujillo narrowly defeated incumbent Carol Robertson Lopez.
Robertson Lopez is back, is running this year against former magistrate judge Bill Dimas, a city councilor in the 1980s, for the District 4 spot being vacated by Ortiz.
In the other council races:
♦ Bushee, who has served 18 years on the council and is seeking a fifth full term, faces 25-year-old political newcomer Houston Johansen.
♦ Running to replace Romero in District 2 are Trust for Public Land lawyer Peter Ives, nurse and longtime nurses’ union leader Dolly Lujan and businessman Bob Sarr, known for his association with the Santa Fe Southern Railroad.
♦ For the District 3 seat that Chavez has held for 12 years, the candidates are community organizer Marie Campos, former fire chief Chris Rivera and retired PNM employee Gil Martinez.
Romero, who is bucking recent council tradition by stepping down after a single, four-year term, said councilors who have been in office for, say, a decade or longer “aren’t as fresh anymore” and may have a “been there, done that” mentality.
They may not be as open to trying new things, she said. Ideas can get lost in the shuffle or shut down entirely because, for instance, the council already discussed and dropped a concept several years ago.
“I know voters — if they keep re-electing people, it’s in the voters’ hands. But from a council perspective, people are pretty tired after 12 years and it doesn’t leave time for newer ideas,” Romero said.
Veteran councilor Bushee certainly doesn’t seem to believe longevity is a negative and says she’s looking forward to some changes herself, if she withstands the challenge from Johansen.
Bushee said she believes new members on the council means “we’ll have new energy to really make some changes.”
Santa Fe operates under a system where the eight members of the City Council (nine, if you count the mayor) serve staggered four-year terms. Four council seats open up every two years, one from each of four districts.
The sitting councilors not up for election this year are District 1’s Chris Calvert, Rebecca Wurzburger in District 2, Carmichael Dominguez in District 3 and Ron Trujillo in District 4.
Four years ago, Romero, who won an open seat, was the council’s sole freshman. In 2010, four council incumbents — Calvert, Dominguez, Trujillo and Wurzburger — easily won re-election.
Romero said the early days of her tenure at the city were, in many ways, difficult. “There was already a tenor that had been set” and councilors had carved out niches for themselves, according to Romero. It was difficult to “break in on” some territory, she said.
But Romero predicted that, with at least three new people joining the council, “it will be easier to share those different ideas, depending on who (the elected) are.”
Other councilors have also expressed frustrations with the makeup, or at least the mode of operation, of the current council.
Chavez said he hopes new councilors will focus on policy instead of politics, and do so in a more transparent, bottom-up manner than he believes has been the case in recent years.
Chavez has been open with allegations that Ortiz is the ringleader of a coalition — comprised of Ortiz, Trujillo, Dominguez, Wurzburger and, depending on the issue, either Calvert or Romero — that has more or less dictated the council’s agenda.
Chavez, who recently announced he’s running for a County Commission seat, said he hopes, when Ortiz leaves, that dynamic will dissipate.
“If the new council continues to operate under the same dynamic as the current council, then, no (the new council) is not going to make a difference. Then the change is not that good,” Chavez said.
Ortiz did not return a message from the Journal last week seeking comment. But he’s addressed Chavez’s criticism before. In response to Chavez’s criticism following the redistricting last year, Ortiz said Chavez’s concerns were “laughable.”
“Councilor Chavez prides himself on being a lone ranger, and when you’re a lone ranger, you end up being alone sometimes,” Ortiz said.
But Bushee echoed Chavez’s concerns about a voting bloc.
“It’s just been different. There’s been a lot of arranged votes where people come in, it seems like, with five votes towards something,” she said.
How newcomers deal with the council’s group dynamics will be interesting to watch. While Bushee and Chavez criticize a bloc and possible behind-the-scenes voting arrangements, others see Bushee and Chavez as outsiders unable to build consensus for their views.
Heldmeyer, who held office in 2000-2008, in any case isn’t optimistic about a new-look council. She said she doesn’t see a lot changing at City Hall over the next couple of years, regardless of who is elected in March.
“I think new blood is generally a good thing. I think in this case, this particular set of new blood will have very little effect on what goes on at City Hall,” she said.
Most of the candidates haven’t indicated they want to see major change at City Hall, she said.
Another problem, according to Heldmeyer, is that people “don’t see the candidates differentiating themselves on issues, whether in literature or from the forums, where they all agree with each other.” She noted that four of the candidates are using the same political consultant.
The council will lose at least 28 cumulative years of local political experience — or 46 years, if Bushee is defeated by challenger Johansen — as it continues to grapple with a number of difficult issues.
Romero noted, for example, that Ortiz “really gets land use issues from a legal perspective.” Heldmeyer said the council is losing an independent voice in Chavez.
The city’s budget future could be a major issue.
The city hasn’t turned the corner on the economy and implementing “bigger ideas” takes experience, Romero said.
Romero said, in her opinion, it takes about a year to “get a real feel” for the city budget. A municipal budget is complicated, and much of it will be initially difficult to grasp even for candidates who have previous budget experience with corporations, non-profits or other organizations, she said.
“I think this is going to be a difficult time to have this many new people coming on because it takes a lot of time to get your feet on the ground. It’s going to be interesting to watch,” Romero said.
Heldmeyer said the timing for incoming councilors has always been terrible because, after taking office in March, they have to jump into working on a budget that needs to be signed off on by the end of May.
“The new councilors will come in and immediately be faced with setting a budget. The budget is in many ways the most important policy decision the council makes and they’re going to be walking in totally not knowing the details, not knowing the process,” Heldmeyer said.
Essentially, budget decisions being made now at City Hall will be rubber-stamped by the incoming councilors “because they won’t have that much information or the ability to change it by the time they get there,” Heldmeyer said.
In general, new councilors may be easily manipulated by more experienced councilors, she maintained. Heldmeyer said some elected officials “are already hard at work making sure decisions they want made will be made.”
Romero said it’s an issue that the city doesn’t really offer new councilors an orientation or comprehensive way of familiarizing themselves with the basic components, such as how a consent agenda works, of being an elected official in Santa Fe.
“I don’t think it’s that complicated but, initially, when you’re coming (in), it’s a lot of information. Those are the challenges folks will face,” Romero said.