Republican mayoral candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson backed out of a Tuesday evening forum hosted by the Democratic Party of Santa Fe County shortly before the event began.
She refused to be a part of a “hyper-partisan debate,” she said in a statement.
Martinez Johnson was scheduled to participate in the forum along with Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber and City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler. However, she sent a statement to county Democratic Party Chairwoman Bernadette Vadurro the day of the event, stating she would not attend.
The decision seemed to hinge on the announcement this week of Santa Fe police Chief Andrew Padilla’s retirement in early December.
“Our Police Chief has resigned,” Martinez Johnson’s statement read. “I will not participate in a hyper-partisan debate whereby political gain supersedes the voice and safety of Santa Feans. [I] will not be a part of furthering any politicians’ misguided statements and actions in making Santa Fe less safe and partisan.”
Padilla, a veteran of the city police department for more than 20 years who was appointed chief by Webber, said Monday the election did not influence his decision to retire.
One issue of the mayor’s race has been whether Webber instructed Padilla to order his officers to stand down during an Indigenous Peoples Day rally on the Plaza in 2020 just before protesters toppled the 152-year-old obelisk, a monument to Civil War soldiers. Vigil Coppler has said a source inside the police department told her Webber made the call, but she has not provided evidence to back her claim.
Webber has denied the allegation, saying mayors do not inform police chiefs how to conduct police work.
Martinez Johnson had asked Vadurro to read her statement at the forum, but Vadurro instead gave an abbreviated announcement in which she said Martinez Johnson “chickened out.”
She later said Martinez Johnson would have gotten the same level of respect as the other two candidates, both registered Democrats.
The Santa Fe mayoral election is a nonpartisan race.
Martinez Johnson, in a text message, said Vadurro provided a “poor response” to her decision to back out.
The announcement set the tone for the second mayoral candidate forum ahead of the Nov. 2 local government election, which includes municipal races.
Webber and Vigil Coppler traded jabs over the city’s state-mandated fiscal audit, which recently was submitted past an initial deadline.
Just before closing statements, Vigil Coppler asked Webber to provide a summary of the audit for fiscal year 2021 and to speak about whether any of the findings in it were repeats of audits from previous years.
Tardiness was one of 21 findings in the 2020 audit, which was submitted six months late. It also outlined issues with internal financial controls.
Webber shot back that the audit cannot be discussed in public until the state auditor releases it. “I would expect you to know that as someone who has been a fiscal agent in the past,” he told Vigil Coppler.
Webber also said the audit was late because of issues surrounding COVID-19, implementation of federal COVID-19 aid, a lack of employees in the finance department and new finance software.
Vigil Coppler later said there were ways for Webber to discuss the audit without going into detail. “There are statements that he can make, that he didn’t make, which are noticeably absent,” she said. “When this audit gets released, take a look.”
Webber questioned whether there were any City Council votes Vigil Coppler, a real estate broker, should have recused herself from based on her previous work as a registered lobbyist for the New Mexico Association of Realtors. He specifically mentioned the city’s short-term rental ordinance that tightened vacation rental guidelines across the city. Vigil Coppler voted against it.
She said Webber was “distorting the truth” and “totally out of line.” The issues she lobbied for were statewide issues, not local, she added.
”No, I shouldn’t have recused myself, but if I have, I would state a reason to do so,” Vigil Coppler said. “You recuse yourself from votes without doing so.”
Tuesday’s forum was similar to one held previously by the Santa Fe Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Community members submitted questions, and eight were chosen for the event. Candidates had about three minutes to answer each question, though the limit was increased due to Martinez Johnson’s absence.
The highest numbers of questions addressed citywide cleanliness, moderators said.
Other topics included growth management, the environment and improving city services like permitting.
When each was asked what they would do to make sure Santa Fe was the cleanest city in New Mexico, Vigil Coppler said she believes everything in the city starts with proper fiscal management and a prioritized city budget.
”My goal is to have my city, the south side, Airport Road, all the way down, to be as clean and as beautiful as we have on the north and east side,” she said. “That is my goal, and I know we can do it with sound fiscal management.”
Webber touted his administration’s attention to constituent services and the implementation of a new complaint response system. He noted that, when he was elected in 2018, there were 1,200 unanswered complaints from city residents.
He said budget constraints and fiscal conservatism due to the pandemic has caused hardships, but rebounding gross receipts tax revenue would be a boon to supporting those services in the future.
Maintenance of existing buildings and development of the city-owned midtown campus also received an ample amount of discussion, with Vigil Coppler saying the city has failed to maintain a handful of city properties, like the 64-acre midtown site, a vacant college campus.
The city had an agreement with Dallas-based KDC Real Estate Development & Investments/Cienda Partners in 2020 to begin planning a development on the site, but the firm backed out, citing concerns about the post-pandemic economy and the deteriorating condition of some buildings.
The city has since restarted the development process, which includes exploring zoning changes.
Vigil Coppler said she didn’t feel the city should be taking such an active role in the development of the campus because it doesn’t have the expertise.
Webber said the city is merely setting the stage for development. He expects zoning changes to occur by the start of 2022, he added.
He said he foresees the site as the future of Santa Fe, with a combination of educational and economic opportunities.
Both candidates said they saw the site as a potential boon for the city’s affordable housing stock.