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Swisstack Leads by Example

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — He’s worn a succession of hats: county commissioner, state legislator, mayor of the state’s fastest-growing city, all while holding a day job with responsibility for the daily fate of hundreds of New Mexicans.

In his latest job-pairing, Tom Swisstack juggles being deputy Bernalillo County manager for public safety and mayor of Rio Rancho, population 87,500.

The day job involves overseeing the Bernalillo County jail and Juvenile Detention Center, long-range planning and coordination for the Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services and other public safety functions.

As mayor, his role is mostly ceremonial although Rio Rancho’s charter defines the office holder as the city’s CEO. The charter vests responsibility for daily operations with the city manager.

On Tuesday, Rio Rancho voters will consider adding language to the charter specifying that the mayor’s job is a full-time position. The charter review committee recommended the change, reasoning the state’s third largest city warranted a full-time mayor. The proposal doesn’t define the meaning of “full time” and the city staff has said a salary adjustment wouldn’t take effect until after the next mayoral election in 2014.

But it does say the mayor can “have outside employment only if the outside employment does not materially conflict with the performance of such (mayoral) duties.” If passed, it would take effect three days after the election.

Several council candidates, including Chuck Wilkins, who is seeking to unseat Councilor Mike Williams to represent District 1, have said they were against the change because of the salary cost and the charter-defined weak-mayor/strong-administration form of government.

Swisstack says he already considers his devotion to the Rio Rancho position equivalent to a full-time job.

He’s held two jobs for decades, as a Sandoval County Commissioner from 1986 to 1994, as a legislator representing House District 60 from 2003 to 2008, and as Rio Rancho mayor since March 2008.

Swisstack estimates he spends a minimum of 40 hours weekly at his county job and 30 hours on mayoral duties. His annual salary as mayor is $26,749.

His routine includes hitting the gym at 4:30 a.m. and working seven days most weeks. A typical day starts with a meeting at 7 a.m. and may incorporate a trip to Rio Rancho for a groundbreaking or ribbon cutting. He meets more than once a week with staffers in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho to set goals and measure progress. He presides over Rio Rancho city council meetings twice monthly and frequently holds public meetings for city residents. On weekends, he often has to officiate at events either in his county or city role.

“And I do a lot of reading at night,” Swisstack said.

County and city officials say they have no qualms about Swisstack’s ability to handle the demands of both jobs simultaneously. Nor do they have concerns about conflicts of interest in situations where his loyalty to the city might compete with his duty as a Bernalillo County employee.

“I have always been confident that if he encountered what he considered to be a conflict of interest he would bring it to us and we would be able to resolve it. I know of very few people in New Mexico who have the level of respect that he does,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins.

Rio Rancho Deputy Mayor Kathy Colley said she has rarely had to cover for Swisstack because he couldn’t attend a groundbreaking, ribbon cutting or council meeting.

“I think he works harder than anyone to ensure he attends as many functions as possible,” Colley said.

Swisstack says his dual positions give him opportunities to build beneficial links between the two governments.

“I know the players on all sides, and I’m fortunate to understand that we do have the same thought process. It’s just breaking down some of those barriers so nobody is taking advantage of each other,” he said.

Swisstack was a longtime director of the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center when in mid-2010 he was picked to take over the public-safety role. He inherited a scandal-plagued portfolio, including bribery charges against the supervisor of the county’s Community Custody Program and nepotism allegations.

Swisstack has stepped into turbulent waters before. When elected to his second non-consecutive term as Rio Rancho mayor in 2008, the city was reeling from scandal involving Kevin Jackson who resigned abruptly in mid-2007 following allegations of financial misdeeds. Rio Rancho also was facing a lawsuit from Jim Palenick, the city manager fired in circumstances that prompted the Attorney General’s Office to determine city councilors violated the state’s Open Meetings law.

Swisstack said his response in both cases has been to surround himself with competent people.

“I personally believe my job is not to micromanage but to set priorities, measure goals and set measurables,” he said.

Those who work with him say he is adept at enabling disparate groups to reach consensus.

A guiding principle, Swisstack said he learned from his father, a New Jersey police officer, was “Always treat people with respect.”