Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Las Cruces Municipal Election

Las Cruces seems to be headed in a lot of good directions: toward a government based on careful planning, not one dominated by business interests; improving quality of life while living within municipal means; and toward sustainability, which can cut costs and improve the environment at the same time.

Despite tough times the city has in reserve twice what’s required. It has such a good credit rating that it was able to refinance some debt and free up $10 million for capital improvement projects. That’s a lot of paved roads and repaired sewers.

Despite a woeful national economy in which jobs are falling away like autumn leaves, Las Cruces has recently added or is in the process of adding between 500 and 2,000 jobs.

Forbes Magazine ranks Las Cruces 14th on its national list of "The Best Small Places for Business and Careers." In job growth, Las Cruces ranks 9th. In 2009 Forbes listed Las Cruces 16th. (Santa Fe ranked 17th.) Forbes credited Las Cruces with job growth of 2.3%, and projected job growth of 2.2% , higher than Santa Fe’s figures. In 2010 CNN-Money ranked the city 14th on a list of good places for jobs.

The city has also tried to do some things that are just plain right, such as improving the community-police relationship, instituting curb-side recycling, and encouraging use of renewable energy.

Across-the-board progress, including hiring some very promising individuals to key positions, has occurred under Mayor Miyagashima and the present City Council. It’s a good record that makes it hard for challengers to argue there’s some pressing need for change.

As displayed in the recent Sun-News debate, Councilwoman Connor agrees with Miyagashima on most issues. She recently said she voted with him 95% of the time. Her campaign seems to be based primarily on the fact that she’d like to be mayor. She knows the city and represents a point-of-view that should be represented on the Council, and it’s perhaps unfortunate she’s giving up her council seat. Connor’s platform advocates things the city already seems to be doing: adding jobs, improving public safety, and cutting down on red-tape that interferes with reasonable efforts to start or expand a business.

The major contested issue is probably impact fees – fees required by cities on new or proposed developments to help fund capital improvements necessitated by the developments. The fees reduce the economic burden on citizens, who would end up paying in taxes for the paving and sewers necessitated by the new development. With declining federal and state support, fairly-calculated impact fees would seem essential to prudent governance of a city. Connor opposes them. She also opposed the forward–looking Sustainability Plan.

The city can continue forward with Ken Miyagashima or turn back with Dolores Connor toward a city run for the convenience more of developers than of citizens. Miyagashima seems a middle-of-the-road sort, a businessman who won’t hamstring business but won’t genuflect to it.

Michael Huerta’s candidacy adds an interesting dimension, but a disappointing one. He can be a very engaging young man. He’s highly articulate. Electing someone so young, and someone who is openly gay, would tend to show outsiders that this is a tolerant city.

Unfortunately, Huerta knows little about city government and appears to care less. He apparently never attended a city council meeting until he announced for mayor. His rhetoric is short on specifics. In Tuesday’s Sun-News debate Huerta attacked his opponents energetically, but often either didn’t know or didn’t care about the facts.

For example, Mr. Huerta boldly proposed selling the municipal gas utility for $45 million. When I asked some knowledgeable people who are not involved in the election, they were shocked. Selling the utility to a private entity would have a huge impact on customers, particularly businesses and the university. Zia Gas, the probable purchaser, charges far higher rates than the city. Based on current rates, a household paying $30 a month for city gas would pay $50 per month to Zia, and a household paying $40 per month would pay $70 to Zia. Someone paying $47 to the city would pay $85.37 to Zia, an 81.6% premium. This would hardly be a favor to the lower-income folks Mr. Huerta often says he wants to help.

The system is encumbered by $81 million in joint utility revenue bonds. It’s the capital-intensive water and wastewater utilities that need that money, but the people buying bonds require the gas revenues to be pledged to repayment too. If for some reason the city sold the gas utility, the city would have to pay off the bonds. The water utility would have to issue new bonds, probably at a much higher rate without the gas revenues to reassure bond-holders. Thus the actual profit to the city might be considerably less than Mr. Huerta suggested.

This appears to be one more remark thrown out to make political points, without any thought. Unless Mr. Huerta has a detailed study that shows a rational basis for it, he should withdraw it or do a little investigating.

City Councilor Nathan Small is what Huerta should try being for awhile: a smart young man who has immersed himself in the mechanics of running a city, lobbying for the city, and getting things done for people. I’ve never spoken personally with Small; but whenever we see him, he’s organizing people to improve his district, explaining how the city helped to bring a new business to town or advising people about an important workshop or meeting. He knows the nuts-and-bolts of municipal government.

When I asked another councilor about Small, the response stressed another strength: "He understands government from top to bottom, and whom to lobby about something at the state or federal level. He’s very smart about that." His fellow councilor went on to echo what we’ve seen: "He’s constantly at work bringing in jobs, fixing drains, getting things done."

No offense to Mr. Diaz, but Small seems an astonishingly good city councilor. If he has a fault, it’s that he fights hard for his district – which might not seem a fault to his constituents.

Miguel Silva should also be retained. He has a business background that he has used effectively to work with businesses in Las Cruces. When there were too many "excessive force" complaints, he was an early and lonely champion of auditing the Police Department. There was strong opposition. He prevailed, resulting in a comprehensive report and ultimately in the hiring of a police chief with community policing experience. His opponent reportedly walked out of the Sun-News candidate forum, and offered mostly platitudes in response to questions from Heath Houssamen at nmpolitics.net.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Tuesday, 2November. Because of space limitations and deadlines, the column as it appeared was slightly different than the above, notably in omission of the discussion of Michael Huerta’s proposal to sell the municipal gas utility. In any case, it represents my views, and not necessarily the newspaper’s – as evidenced by the fact that they publish it under a heading "Their Views." That’s even more true of this blog, which isn’t published by the Sun-News.
As I often do, I want to make a couple of points here that I lacked space to include in the column. One is to provide more detail on Michael Huerta and the PAC supporting him. A second is to add some discussion of the Silva-Chadborn race, for which I ran out of space in the column.]

Michael Huerta

At first, Michael Huerta seemed like an appealing candidate. He speaks with passion and says things that sound good on first hearing. People are charmed by him when they meet him.

Unfortunately, he has no relevant experience; some of the things he says don’t hold up on examination; and others are just silly.

His main experience is participation in campaigns for Hillary Clinton, Steve Pearce, and Harry Teague, as well as (very briefly) Pat Davis, who ran for sheriff up in Bernalillo Colunty. He has no experience in local government, and no experience in actually running any government.

Huerta’s record also includes a $5,000 small claims court judgment from last year that he apparently paid off shortly before announcing for mayor. Four years ago, he ran for student body president at George Washington University, where he came in fifth in a five-person race before dropping out of college. In 2008, he ran successfully to be a delegate at the National Democratic Convention in 2008, beating several more experienced politicians. It is not clear that he ever so much as attended a city council meeting before he decided he wanted to be mayor.

His statement at the Sun-News debate that the City should sell its gas utility appears to have been said because it would sound good. When one of the other candidates questioned it, Huerta didn’t provide any reasoned argument or facts, but simply said, "I got that from someone who used to be a supporter of yours," or words to that effect. I think he repeated it twice.

In fact: (1) it isn’t a very progressive idea; (2) the effect would be to increase gas prices, almost doubling them for many customers; (3) its secondary effect would be to discourage businesses, since the increase would be largest for them; and (4) it would make less money than he claims, because of the need to refinance joint utilities debt a a higher interest rate.  Bottom line: the municipal gas utility helps support other utilities while keeping prices down for its citizens who use gas, which is most of them.

Michael Huerta and the Total Newport PAC

On 8 September, Heath Haussamen reported that a Political Action Committee from Rhode Island was going to help Michael Huerta become Mayor of Las Cruces.

Discussion initially focused on whether this was legal or ethical. Was it fair that this PAC, which claimed it would put enough money and organizing into the race to "drag Michael Huerta kicking and screaming to victory," might have a major influence on the mayoral race here? I got interested in the story, and investigated.

(One point that gets lost in much of the discussion is one on which Michael Huerta, his supporter in Newport, and I all agree on, as do many legal and constitutional law experts: the Supreme Court made a wrong and dangerous decision in Citizens United v. FEC . The decision struck down limits on a PAC’s financing of ads helping an election candidate, and essentially said that as corporations are people, such limits violated the First Amendment and restricted free speech. The effect of the decision will be to allow the big-money folks, who already control too much of our electoral and governmental processes, to have an even more power. Money will be even more nakedly the deciding element in more and more elections, as some recent examples have already shown. )

I quickly learned that the fellow running the Rhode Island PAC was anything but the big wheel he purported to be. I’ll spare you the details, but every indication is that he has little money and little access to money. If the PAC puts any real money into this election, it will be money from out-of-state individuals known to Michael Huerta who use the PAC as a way of helping Huerta without being seen to do so.

Huerta has consistently denied involvement.

That denial appears not to be accurate.

His self-described campaign coordinator, Georgi Blumenthal, knew Bobby Oliveira from the 2004 Dean Campaign. For some reason, she was in touch with him about the Huerta campaign, and he responded by forming a Rhode Island PAC (which filed its first papers in Rhode Island September 9, listing Ms. Blumenthal as treasurer) and made various statements about the Las Cruces mayoral race, some of them extremely odd.

When news of the PAC surfaced, Mr. Huerta first said he welcomed all support, then back-tracked a bit to say that the support by the PAC was inappropriate and that he rejected its support. He said the PAC didn’t belong here, that he had learned about Mr. Oliveira only when Mr. Huerta called to interview him about the PAC, and that he had severed all connections with Ms. Blumenthal immediately as soon as he learned of the PAC. Ms. Blumenthal supports that claim.

Mr. Oliveira’s Facebook posts strongly appear to contradict both Mr. Huerta and Ms. Blumenthal.

On August 23, Oliveira writes "all right, time to get some work done before bed," and Blumenthal replies by asking, "The work for me?" This was the night before the date of her friends’ letter to Oliveira, which she denies she knew about. This week she claimed that Oliveira didn’t get involved in the Las Cruces mayoral race until a few days before Labor Day, and that he hadn’t done any other work for her in August.

On August 24, Oliveira writes, "OK, proposal got sent to the kid in Las Cruces . . . I only ran the headquarters for 13 Winning mayors in Massachusetts. . . . Let’s see if our boy wants to play." The next morning he writes, "Looks like we’re in the Las Cruces race . . . through a huge New Mexico sized backdoor." He and Blumenthal then discuss New Mexico law and the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Huerta has repeatedly said he learned of Oliveira only later, when Mr. Haussamen asked him about the PAC.

Mr. Oliveira ‘s apparent reference to Huerta as "the kid in Las Cruces" echoes comments he made a few years ago when Newport city councillors selected a 29-year-old Republican as mayor. According to published reports, Mr. Oliveira said, "He lives with his mother."

When I asked Ms. Blumenthal, she said that Oliveira’s first involvement with the Huerta campaign was later, closer to Labor Day; and when I asked whether Mr. Oliveira had been doing any other kind of work for her in August, she said that he had not. When I tried to ask Mr. Huerta about these posts last week, he shouted, "I’m not talking to you about that!, I’m not talking to you about that!" and hurried away.

I try to keep an open mind. I will be interested in the explanation, when it comes, of why "the kid in Las Cruces" doesn't mean the 25-year-old Mr. Huerta.

Mr. Huerta asks us to believe that although Ms. Blumenthal was a close advisor, a more experienced activist than he, who was working hard to get him elected, she contacted Mr. Oliveira about forming the Rhode Island PAC without even telling Mr. Huerta about it.  That seems highly unlikely in any business or political situation that an underling would go so far without at least tacit approval from her boss.  It seems more unlikely in this context, where Ms. Blumenthal is an experienced Democratic activist of whose skills and experience several people have spoken highly to me.

Silva vs. Chadborn

If I could select a city councillor from scratch, I wouldn’t choose either of these folks; but there’s a clear choice between them. Silva knows city government and has clear ideas about things the city should do. I don’t agree with them all. For example, both he and Chadborn oppose impact fees, which so far seem like a good idea to me. But he has thought-out positions he can articulate.

As I understand it, Chadborn walked out of the candidate forum at the Sun-News office, leaving folks to wonder if she’d do the same if she didn’t like the way a City Council meeting was going. Her answers to Heath Haussamen’s set of candidate questions might be a clue as to why she walked out: she may not have much to say.

If you live in District 1, I’d urge you to look at "Cruces District 1 council candidates discuss issues" at www.nmpolitics.net [the precise URL for this post is http://www.nmpolitics.net/index/2011/10/cruces-district-1-council-candidates-discuss-issues/ ].

Chadborn appears capable solely of platitudes.

For example, asked "What does the city need to do in the next four years about growth and development, and what would you do as a councilor to make it happen, Silva discusses a Comprehensive Plan, the time required to revise it and change zoning and planning regulations; suggests starting an Economic Development Council of business and civic leaders; mixed-use zoning and more flexible planning; and continued work on Main Street and development of Downtown. Chadborn’s complete answer is:
"As a councilor, I would listen to the taxpayers about what they want to see happen, and help them to achieve their goals."

For another example, on political action committees and whether the City should do something about their participation in local elections, Silva shows a little knowledge of the legal situation and at least advocates seeking a solution. Chadborn just quotes the constitution and says people should "follow the rules" – without addressing the question of what those rules are, should be, or could be.

For a third: Haussamen asked the candidates, with regard to the city’s efforts to focus on quality of life and sustainability, what each would do tho ensure the city plans for its future, adding, "Please identify specific initiatives or propsals you want to implement in the next four years."

Chadborn’s complete answer, which is spectacularly unilluminating, is:
"Fiscal responsibility is the key, so that the residents are ensured that infrastructure concerns, public safety, and other general services are provided. Freedom of opportunity is the highest quality of life and as councilor I would facilitate freedom and opportunity."

Presumably she approves of motherhood and apple pie, too, and the Little League.

Silva, by contrast, at least answered the question, citing specific initiatives he supports, such as obtaining the Country Club for a park and some mixed-use development, developing the open space behind the Las Cruces flood dam, finishing Downtown Main Street, and modifications to the Sustainability Plan.
And on perhaps the biggest issue facing Las Cruces, which is maximizing the chance that we’ll have enough water for the future, Silva acknowleges its importance, calls for regional agreement on the situation, assesses the short-term situation, and calls for using less water and reclaiming water we do use. He’s not highly specific, but at least understands the nature of the problem and how to start trying to solve it.

Chadborn simply says, "Aside from oversight and accountability, I haven’t seen any specific measures I could support. Everyone involved needs more information." Well, Jeez, glad we got that cleared up!
At least Silva knows something and can articulate positions. If he hasn’t got solutions, he at least has some idea how to approach solving problems. Chadborn either doesn’t have ideas or doesn’t think they’d sit well with a majority of voters, and thus keeps to herself about them. Whether she knows much about the details of running the city is questionable, since she doesn’t display such knowledge and hasn’t a record to run on.

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