SANTA FE, N.M. — Monday will be a momentous day for Santa Fe city government. Not only will Alan Webber take office as the city’s 43rd mayor, but the powers of that office are being expanded in accordance with a series of charter amendments adopted by city voters four years ago.
The amendments established governance under a new “full-time mayor” and set the parameters for “Regulating the Relationships Between the Mayor, the City Councilors, the City Manager and Defining the Authority of Each.”
For instance, effective March 12 the mayor will “exercise administrative control and supervision over the city manager, city attorney and city clerk.” In addition, the mayor will “have the authority to remove the city manager, city attorney and city clerk,” though those choices, as well as appointments to advisory missions, do require approval by the City Council.
The mayor can’t hire or fire other city employees, however, presumably not even the police chief, a position that has been vacant since Patrick Gallagher resigned in December. Those decisions still fall on the city manager, who is given the authority “to hire and fire all city employees, except for the city attorney and city clerk.”
That leaves the mayor’s influence on personnel matters down through the city work force still to be determined.
“It makes for a whole different dynamic in the relationship between the mayor and city manager,” said former mayor David Coss, who served two terms as mayor from 2006 to 2014.
Coss said that relationship was frequently a “struggle,” not just for him but for his predecessors Larry Delgado, Debbie Jaramillo and Sam Pick.
Over the years, there had been quite a bit of turnover at in the city manager’s position before the job has stabilized, somewhat, this decade. Just two people have served as city manager in the last nine years – Robert Romero, who was hired in January 2010 under Coss, and current city manager Brian Snyder, who was interim city manager before being named to the position permanently during outgoing Mayor Javier Gonzales’ first year in office.
“Votes on terminating the city manager can be very political,” Coss said, adding that the city manager had to stay in favor of at least five city councilors to keep their job. “Now the mayor may just ask you to leave.”
Coss noted that, even after next Monday, the city manager will still be somewhat beholden to the eight-member City Council, which under another charter change can remove that person with six votes.
Under the charter changes – approved by 58 percent of voters in the 2014 municipal election – the mayor is also responsible for setting “the legislative agenda for the upcoming year” and working with city staff to establish an annual budget.
Coss also observed that Webber doesn’t have all the tools at his disposal that many other full-time mayors do.
“It’s not really a strong mayor like, say, Mayor (Tim) Keller in Albuquerque,” he said. “(Webber) has no veto power, and he’s still a part of the governing body.”
Newly elected city councilor Carol Romero-Wirth served on the charter commission that proposed the changes. She said the commission considered giving the mayor veto power and removing them from the deliberations of the City Council. “At the time, that was too big a change,” she said.
Looking back at recent administrations, mayors have always worked full time, Romero-Wirth said.
“The only thing changing is the fact that we will pay them at a level commensurate with the position and giving them the authority to do their work and carry out their vision, but they still have to work with the City Council,” she said, adding that the changes in roles create a better separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of city government. Webber’s pay as mayor will be $110,000 a year, up from $29,578.
And Webber will still have to get four votes from councilors to enact his vision, and councilors, who set policy, will need as many votes to push their proposals through.
“We’re going to have to work collaboratively,” Romero-Wirth said.
But giving the mayor clear administrative authority allows the mayor to build his own “team,” she said.
The changes put the city manager squarely under the mayor, whereas before, “there were too many cooks in the kitchen,” she said, agreeing with Coss.
“The city manager had too many bosses,” Romero-Wirth said. “Wherever those five votes were, that’s where they would have to be responsive.”
Former City Councilor Karen Heldmeyer, who served two terms ending in 2008 and still attends more city meetings than most councilors as an interested citizen, doesn’t see the changes as that big a deal.
“I never thought it was very significant because ostensibly, if a mayor and a city manager didn’t get along, it was always the manager that was gone and not the mayor,” she said.
Same for the mayor’s new responsibility to formulate the budget. Until now, it was the city manager’s job to present the city’s budget, “but that was never done in a vacuum. It was always done in the context of the mayor’s administration,” she said.
Asked if the charter changes will make a real difference, she said, “We’ll see what happens.”
She said a main objective of the amendment changes when proposed in 2013 was to increase the mayor’s salary. But the new $110,000 salary still faces a legal challenge.
In December, the Republican Party of Santa Fe County and nine individuals sued the city, claiming the City Council wrongfully formed an independent salary commission that ultimately set the mayor’s new pay rate. The GOP’s suit is still pending.
So what does the new mayor think?
He’s not ready to say.
“Right now we’re working on a transition process with (former state District Judge Michael) Vigil as chair,” he said. “We’ll be looking at all those questions and the organizational chart and job descriptions before anything.
“But the focus will be on an orderly process,” Webber said. “What I’ve seen in my own work life is it starts with people – people who are part of a team.”
One issue facing Webber will be whether to stick with the current top-level administrative structure at City Hall. The city has a city manager and a deputy city manager, a position created in 2016. Critics have said the setup makes city government too top-heavy under a full-time mayor who will be paid like a chief executive.
Webber has a broad background that includes serving as an aide to former Portland, Ore., Mayor Neil Goldschmidt and then following him to Washington, D.C., when Goldschmidt was named Secretary of Transportation. Webber later became editorial director of the Harvard Business Review and went on to co-found and become co-editor-in-chief of the business periodical Fast Company before the magazine was sold.
Webber said that as part of the process he plans to sit down with current and former city officials to get their perspectives before making any big decisions.
“It will probably be very methodical,” he said, adding that his administration will begin identifying short-, intermediate- and long-term needs.
Some decisions he’ll have to make right away, like naming a mayor pro tem from among the councilors and appointing people to committee positions. The new council meets for the first time Wednesday. But he’s not going to walk into City Hall on Monday and start overhauling everything. “We have to take the time to do it right,” he said.
Webber agreed that the full-time mayor system does make more of a distinction between the executive and legislative branches of city government. And that it makes the mayor more accountable. “The buck stops at the mayor’s desk. It doesn’t stop at the city manager’s desk,” he said.
Take some time
Heldmeyer said Webber is wise to take his time.
“The first couple of weeks it’s going to be hard to set up a government,” she said. “A lot of people at City Hall are retiring or about to retire, so there are going to be a lot of vacancies. So one of the things the new mayor is going to have to do, and the city manager is going to have to do, is come up with a plan for how they are going to hire and replace those people.”
And the people they hire need to be capable people who are on board with the mayor’s agenda. “Certainly, there are many, many areas where City Hall could stand improvement,” Heldmeyer said. “But the main thing for the new mayor if he has certain things in mind is to make sure that the upper-level people he gets agree with him about those things. Because as anybody who worked at City Hall knows, if the mayor wants them to do something they don’t necessarily want them to do, it’s difficult to change.”
There will be a period of adjustment for the City Council, too. Its returning members will have to get used to a new mayor, and three new members – Romero-Wirth, Roman “Tiger” Abeyta and JoAnne Vigil Coppler – need time to settle in.
“It’s going to take a while, even for the City Council, to find out how they want to move forward,” Heldmeyer said.