Española City Council Opts Out Of Local Elections Act

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Española City Council Opts Out Of Local Elections Act

Panhandling ordinance also repealed.

The Española City Council voted Tuesday to opt out of the Local Elections Act, which went into effect July 1, 2018.

Opting into the Local Election Act would have established the Regular Local Election, a consolidated election day for non-partisan local government bodies on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of each odd-numbered year. Because local elections are currently held in even-numbered years, opting into the Local Election Act would have either reduced the terms of currently serving elected official or lengthened them.

According to City Clerk Melissa Velasquez, opting into the act would have saved the city approximately $15,000 per election, since county clerks – rather than the city clerk’s office – would be overseeing local elections. Under the Local Elections Act, the county would be required to pay approximately $5,000 toward election costs over a two-year period, as opposed to the $20,000 – $21,000 recent elections have cost the city.

Despite the savings, having county clerks’ offices run the elections was the main objection to opting in. Councilors were concerned about logistical issues posed for a city straddling two counties. The only other city in the state located in two counties, the City of Rio Rancho, also voted last week to opt out of the act.

Councilor John Ramon Vigil pointed out that those wanting to run for local office would have to drive either 1:15 minutes to Tierra Amarilla or 45 minutes to Santa Fe to file their Declaration of Candidacy. Councilor John Ricci noted that District 1 includes both counties, so candidates would have to drive to both county offices on filing day.

Mayor Pro Tem Peggy Sue Martinez, who made the motion to opt out of the Local Elections Act, was concerned that issues could arise if candidates in split districts won in one county but lost in the other.

City Attorney A.J. Salazar worked to assure councilors that the Secretary of State’s office and the Rio Arriba and Santa Fe county clerks were capable of handling the logistics. Salazar had consulted with both county clerks.

“They are outstanding governmental entities, and I do believe that they’re very good at what they do and that they would be prepared to go ahead and handle this.” Salazar said.

Martinez was also concerned that local elections could become more political if held in conjunction with statewide elections. Other councilors noted that the duties of the city clerk and clerk’s office would have to be revisited. If the Local Elections Act had been adopted, the city clerk’s only role in local elections would be advising candidates.

Martinez’ motion to opt out passed by a vote of 6 – 0, with Councilor Robert Seeds abstaining. Councilor Denise Benavidez was not present at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Councilors also repealed Ordinance No. 2018-06, an ordinance that criminalized “Peddling and Soliciting;” also known as the panhandling ordinance.

City Attorney A.J. Salazar presented the ordinance to repeal on the grounds that the Supreme Court rulings on similar laws have found them unconstitutional, determining that soliciting donations is protected speech under the first amendment.

Salazar also noted that law enforcement officers have many tools to deal with aggressive panhandling, including state statutes regarding harassment, assault, battery and stalking.

“There’s a whole list that can take care of abhorrent behavior while not criminalizing poverty or individuals asking for donations,” Salazar said.

Councilors wanted to know what actions private property owners could take to prevent panhandling on their premises. Salazar promised to work with law enforcement to inform property owners of the change in the law and their rights to prevent trespass on their property.

The ordinance passed unanimously.

Councilors unanimously rejected a proposal by Planning and Land Use Director Alison Gillette to remove six commercial properties from the Clean & Lien Resolution.

Gillette proposed removing six properties on Riverside Drive, not because they have “cleaned up or complied with the resolution but because we’re trying to streamline our processes for 2019.”

Gillette proposed resurrecting Section 302 of the municipal code regarding vacant structures to deal with those properties. Under that code, the owners would be required to register with the City of Española and either bring the property up to standards set forth by Planing and Land Use or pay a fee of $35 a month.

Councilors challenged Gillette’s contention that Section 302 would provide the leverage needed to bring those properties into compliance.

“Our penalty’s only $35 dollars if they don’t do anything, compared to tearing down their building? Where’s the leverage?” Ricci said.

Gillette countered that only one of those property owners has made any effort to comply despite the threat to tear down their buildings.

“What we really want right now is to have a nice-looking commercial corridor,” Gillette said. “We have some very dangerous properties in the residential areas…we want to tear those buildings down, and we only have a certain amount of money allocated for the actual tear-down of structures. I want to focus on the ones that are truly posing a danger to this community.”

“These photos (of the properties in question) remind me of the Wild West,” said Councilor Justin Salazar-Torrez. “I think it’s horrible. Our comprehensive plan is to beautify our city, and $35 bucks here, $35 bucks there – it just doesn’t cut it for me. I want to attract people to our city, not scare them away as they drive through.”

Ricci proposed keeping those properties on the Clean & Lien list until Section 302 could be amended to provide stronger penalties for noncompliance.

Martinez expressed concern about a property purported to have leaking petroleum storage tanks onsite.

Gillette responded that the city could bring the power of the New Mexico Environment Department to bear on that property (as well as other such properties throughout the city) and that there may be some funding available to help owners with that issue.

The mayor pro tem and Councilor Many Martinez were both concerned about a property owner on the list who wants the city to clean up his property and bill him. The owner bought the property in a tax auction and has never seen it.

Manny Martinez contended that if the city did that for one property owner others would soon be asking for the same help. He was concerned that taxpayers could end up footing the bill if the property owners did not reimburse the city.

City Attorney A.J. Salazar was asked about the timeframe for taking action on noncompliant properties. He responded that the court process for placing a lien on a property is a lengthy one, but suggested that the International Property Maintenance Code, which the city adopted in 2016, might provide some faster remedies. He also suggested that with the large number of properties on the list, the planning department could use a full-time attorney to address the issue.

Mayor Pro Tem Peggy Sue Martinez made the motion to not remove those six properties from the Clean & Lien list.

“The whole initiative of Clean and Lien and Clean Up Española was to really change the façade of what people saw when they came through our community,” Martinez said. “And most of these properties are on the main drag…these properties are still identifying our communities.”

Martinez’ motion passed: 5 – 2, with Ramon Vigil and Seeds voting against. Ramon Vigil wants to see clear standards established for what property owners must do to comply.

The next public hearing on the Clean & Lien Resolution is at the next city council meeting, Jan. 8, 2019.