Shift coming for Santa Fe municipal elections

November 26, 2018

A consequential shift in how the city of Santa Fe conducts its elections was nearly drowned out this month in all the noise about a new governor, a blue wave and the rest.

Municipal voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment that cemented a new city election schedule. Instead of March in even-numbered years, elections for mayor, City Council seats and the municipal judgeship will now take place in November of odd-numbered years.

That means the March 2020 city election is now the November 2019 city election.

It also means a crop of city officeholders, with their terms reduced by a few months, are now contemplating prospective bids for re-election sooner than they had initially planned. The city can expect yard signs and campaign forums to proliferate next summer, rather than in the early months of 2020.

Bring it on, some say.

“The thought of walking the neighborhoods in warm weather as opposed to the sleet and snow and darkness of winter, that is a somewhat attractive proposal,” said City Councilor Peter Ives, laughing.

The shift in election dates and shortening of terms, for which councilors signaled their support by voting to place the charter amendment question on the ballot, is a welcome dynamic — not a strange one, councilors said.

Councilor Mike Harris pointed to one significant positive: Holding elections in November allows winners two months of transition time before a January swearing-in, as opposed to the current format, in which city winners are elected on a Tuesday and sworn in Sunday.

Harris recalled how he and Councilor Renee Villarreal, new members of the council elected in 2016, were both assigned to the city’s influential finance panel only days after winning office — in the middle of a fiscal crisis.

“You have your first Finance Committee meeting a few days later, and The New Mexican headlines are screaming about a $15.5 million budget deficit,” Harris said.

“This will allow newly elected members of the governing body to have some time for training and getting ready to do the job,” he added.

Ives lightheartedly said a shortened term was nothing out of the ordinary.

“I’m not sure it’s any stranger than running for office in the first instance,” he said.

But if the last election cycle for these councilors was any indication, the 2019 field could be a snoozer.

In 2016, Ives and Councilor Chris Rivera both won re-election without opposition; it was the second term for each man. Harris also was unopposed in winning an open seat on the dais.

Only one of the city’s four council districts, the north- and northwest-side District 1, produced a contested race, though it was not particularly competitive, as Villarreal lapped a field of three challengers.

Each of the four councilors whose terms will expire next year said contested races are better for local civic life, even if it would mean a more challenging path to winning back their seats.

“I think it’s very healthy to have competitive races,” Villarreal said. “For one, it’s part of the democratic process. I always anticipate there will be somebody that is interested, that’s running. I think that’s the beauty of democracy. That they have the ability to step up.”

Rivera, who represents the southwest-side District 3, where voter turnout is consistently lowest and voters have not had a contested City Council race since 2014, said he would welcome a challenger.

“But it has to be somebody that has the time to do it, has some understanding of how government works,” said Rivera, a former city fire chief. “People have to really be in there and be committed to it.”

“I joke that I got a hall pass,” Harris said, adding that he was curious how the state of play in the city might impact potential candidate fields. Could it have been the case that the city’s financial woes in 2015-16 deterred would-be office-seekers?

“We did have three uncontested races that year, and a lot of people mentioned to me, ‘Harris, what in the hell are you thinking about to get in the middle of things?’ But, on the other hand, some people said, ‘Great, go get in the middle of things, I’m glad.’ ”

Ives said a prospective candidate’s commitment to the community should outweigh the simple fact of having more than one name on the ballot.

“It’s really a question of a significant level of engagement, and hopefully that is something that is evidenced by a person’s participation in the process through time,” he said.

Update hourly