Best and Worst of 2006
The year in review
After paging through hundreds of old articles, nursing several pots of coffee and wracking our brains for significant stories from the past year, our team of researchers stood back and stared at it: the best and worst list of 2006. It was awful—three times as many stories on how our city had screwed things up as there were stories on the city’s accomplishments. It looked dismal, lopsided, disjointed.
Maybe it’s growing pains.
Albuquerque celebrated its 300th birthday this year, but that by no means makes it wise. Albuquerque’s still a pup, a mid-sized, nascent city learning how to grow. And through our pubescence, we spoiled it proper on more than one occasion.
But that’s no reason to pout. We got a few things right this year, too. From finally giving our poorest citizens a raise to embracing region-wide public transportation, we’ve earned some bragging rights. And even in our failures, from threatening civil liberties to watching Patricia Madrid bungle her chance at Congress, we’ve learned something. So sit back and enjoy, dear readers, it’s time for a little education.
Best of 2006 - Downtown Strategic Outreach Team Steps Out
The Albuquerque Police Department and the city's various social agencies sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to coping with our homeless population. But on March 10, the Downtown Strategic Outreach team--a collaboration of APD and other agencies--stepped out for the first time. The team keeps track of Downtown's concentrated homeless population, provides people with snacks, water and a list of services, and tries to connect them with programs that could aid in their departure from the streets. Not only does this soothe the strain on the Downtown area, the team does it with a real feeling for who these people are and what they need. Talk about progress.
Worst of 2006 - Cracking Down on Downtown
The city and its police force rolled up their sleeves at the beginning of summer and got ready to clean things up Downtown. At a May 9 meeting, the plan was laid out for Downtown businesses: The state's Special Investigation Division would fight underage drinking; more APD officers would patrol the entertainment district; the anti-cruising ordinance would be enforced.
It all looks good on paper until you factor in Breathalyzer tests on the street, hidden cameras installed at major intersections and a major blow to one of New Mexico's primary artistic statements: the lowrider. Follow all that up with changes to the Liquor Control Act stiffening penalties for bars caught selling liquor to intoxicated people (especially when the methods for determining who is intoxicated are so subjective) and, needless to say, things got tense. No one would argue that breaking the law or exhibiting dangerous behavior should be tolerated, but a little temperance on the part of enforcers would be nice.
Best of 2006 - Preventing Cervical Cancer
The cure for cancer remains elusive, but 2006 brought great strides in the right direction.
In June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the OK to Gardasil, a vaccine for two strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease that causes 99.7 percent of cervical cancer cases. Gardasil, along with a similar vaccine called Ceravix that’s up for FDA approval in 2007, are the lifework of Cosette Wheeler, a professor at UNM, and her team at the House of Prevention Epidemiology, more commonly called the Hope Clinic. The vaccine is expensive at $150 per shot in a three-shot sequence works best if given to girls before becoming sexually active. It's a vaccine for a virus known to cause cancer—this one's headed for the history books.
Worst of 2006 - Governor Refused Debate
King Bill has done a lot of good things for our state, but his refusal to debate his opponent, Republican John Dendahl, in the run-up to the gubernatorial election shows a real lack of character. We have a right to expect candidates for the biggest job in the state to debate each other on live TV. A free and open debate is, after all, a hallmark of a true democracy.
Another potential 2008 presidential contender, Hillary Clinton, was also way ahead of her opponent in the race for the Senate in New York. She agreed to a debate on TV, and by most accounts she did a lousy job of it. She still won with flying colors, and in the process she showed the courage we desperately need in a leader of the free world. If Richardson decides to run for president, we suspect his poor judgment on this issue will come back to haunt him.
Best of 2006 - Passing a New Minimum Wage
Despite the minimum wage provision being voted down in last year's municipal election, the City Council and the mayor signed an ordinance in April to raise Albuquerque's minimum wage starting on Jan. 1, 2007. The increase gives New Mexicans working at the federal standard of $5.15 an hourly increase to $6.75, with an increase to $7.15 on Jan. 1, 2008, and to $7.50 on Jan. 1, 2009, making Albuquerque one of only four cities with a minimum higher than the federal standard. There's no increase of base pay for tipped workers, but it does require business owners to pay to the difference if the base pay plus tips is less than the minimum. Now low-income workers will be able to bask in the luxuries of feeding their families and buying health insurance ... imagine.
We think Albuquerque's new minimum wage is still too low, but it's a good start.
Worst of 2006 - Flubbing the General Election
We have it rough in New Mexico: We just can’t seem to run a smooth election. This year proved no different.
Never mind that we had to wait more than a week after Election Day to find out who held the District One Congressional seat. There were a number of flubs made by County Clerk Mary Herrera (now our secretary of state) that could have actually affected election results.
First she sent 1,300 people in Bernalillo County multiple absentee ballots. Then she left an item off the ballot that dealt with property taxes and the purchase of open space. Finally, on Election Day, she sent two precincts in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights hundreds of fewer ballots than needed, and they subsequently ran out. Her office eventually delivered more, but dozens of voters were told they couldn’t vote in the meantime.
Granted, no one in the Alibi offices has attempted to oversee an election. But other states seem to get it right---why can’t we?
Best of 2006 - Voting with a Paper Trail
Never mind the hubbub and hype all over the news before Election Day about the long lines at polling locations and the terrible trouble paper ballots would surely cause—paper is the future. Even with a few hang-ups during the midterm elections (not the least of which included a lack of ballots at a few precincts), the paper ballots proved easy to use, simple to recount, satisfying and completely reassuring. The horror stories of the 2000 and 2004 elections, and the apparent ease of hacking a computerized voting machine, made many concerned voters across the nation call for a paper record of every vote. New Mexico stood out as one of few states to fully embrace the paper trail effectively, saying, “Hey, Diebold, keep your slimly touch-screen voting machines away from our right to cast a fair vote!”
Worst of 2006 - Handling of the Modern Streetcar Proposal
The Alibi loves public transportation. We support the Rapid Ride. We rally for the Rail Runner. We think the whole city (including the Westside) should be equipped with an affordable, state-of-the-art transit system. Heck, we even think the idea of a modern streetcar is cool. But the way the city handled its proposal to bring one to Albuquerque proved shortsighted.
The City Council passed legislation in November to extend the quarter-cent Transportation Infrastructure Tax to 2020, when it was set to expire in 2009. The gross-receipts tax was originally passed by voters in 1999 and was intended to pay for street, trail and transit needs. The tax did so well, the city decided to extend it and use the excess to build a $270 million streetcar line along parts of Central.
Whether or not you support the idea of a streetcar system, the city bungled this project by not allowing voters to decide whether they want to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a limited transportation system. The line would primarily affect the parts of the city that are already best served. For the amount of money it wanted to spend on the project, the city could install a transportation system that would affect all corners of Albuquerque.
A few weeks after the vote to start the project, the city reacted to public outcry and declared the streetcar proposal will go to voters after it visits various committees and the city does an analysis on its financial viability. We’re glad the city came to its senses and slowed down the project--it’s what should have happened in the first place.
Best of 2006
Best of 2006 - The Rail Runner Hits the Tracks
It's true that not quite as many people are riding our new commuter train as they were back in July when it first hit the tracks. But come on—riding the Rail Runner was free for three months as a promotional gimmick. Everyone understood that ridership would drop once people had to start paying for tickets. Big whoop-di-doo.
The bottom line is that the Rail Runner, which runs on biodiesel, is extremely good for New Mexico. In a state that isn't always open to progressive thinking, we already have a piece of the infrastructure that'll be necessary for dealing with the petroleum-scarce economy of the future.
Expansion is clipping along at a quick rate. The Los Lunas station opened early last month. Belen is scheduled to start up this month. A station in Downtown Bernalillo will probably be next, followed by stops at Isleta and Sandia pueblos. By the end of 2008, the plan is to get it running all the way up to Santa Fe, at which point you can expect ridership to spike dramatically.
Catch the Bird!
Worst of 2006 - Kendra’s Law Passes ... and Then Gets the Boot
The John Hyde murders of last summer burned a permanent scar on Albuquerque’s emotional history. Hyde, a schizophrenic off his medication, fatally shot five city residents last August, including two police officers.
In reaction to the tragedy, the State Legislature introduced a bill in early 2006 that would have instituted Kendra’s Law. The law, passed in 42 other states, mandates assisted outpatient treatment for certain severely mentally ill people who neglect to get treatment on their own. The bill ran out of time in the Legislature and will likely be re-introduced in the 2007 Legislative Session, but in the meantime Albuquerque tried to pass its own Kendra’s Law.
The city brought the controversial bill to the Council in April. Councilors debated the bill for a number of months before passing it in the fall. But shortly after, District Court Judge Valerie Huling struck down the legislation, stating it exceeded the city’s authority and violated state law. The city is seeking an appeal.
The Alibi agrees with Huling—the law has no place at a city level and, if passed, should be done so statewide. Kendra’s Law deserves thoughtful discussions and analysis, and shouldn’t be rushed as part of a backlash to last year’s local tragedy. The law has the potential to improve quality of life for some mentally ill people in the state, and it could even save lives. But it also risks the civil liberties of those it’s trying to save. Additionally, unless funding is put behind the measure, Kendra’s Law is just another program that will further burden the already severely underfunded mental health services in the state.
Worst of 2006 - Laura Berg Investigated for Sedition
Do you remember this crazy story? You should—we splashed it on the cover. It was a story near and dear to the Alibi's heart. Early last year, a nurse at our local Veterans' Affairs hospital named Laura Berg wrote a letter to the Alibi, which we printed. Berg's letter criticized the Bush administration for the war in Iraq, as well as its slow response to Hurricane Katrina. She capped off her letter by advising citizens to "act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit."
Seemed like a run-of-the-mill letter to the editor at the time. So we were appalled to learn that Berg's work computer was subsequently impounded and searched by VA security officers. According to Berg, her union rep told her that her Alibi letter went "through VA channels" to the FBI in Washington. Then she was told by VA Human Resources Chief Mel Hooker that she was being investigated for "sedition"—a federal statutory crime involving plots to violently overthrow the U.S. Government.
Thankfully, Berg's story was picked up by media across the country. Civil liberties advocates were outraged. The ACLU agreed to represent her. Sen. Jeff Bingaman demanded an investigation into why Berg was harassed by the federal government simply for exercising her First Amendment rights. Eventually, she did receive a private apology from her boss along with a public admission by Veteran Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson that Berg's “letter to [the Alibi] did not amount to sedition.” No kidding! Even so, it was a poignant local example of the continuing attack on freedom of expression in George W. Bush's America.
Worst of 2006 - Marty’s Attack on After-School Programs
Mayor Martin Chavez used unlikely pawns in his battle for control of Albuquerque Public Schools: Teddy Bears.
The city gives $1,576,000 to APS for after-school programs every year. "I'm not spending taxpayers' money anymore on doll sharing, on teddy bear club, jump rope," Chavez said at an early July news conference. Instead, Chavez decided to focus the money on more "academic" programs.
Teachers, up in arms, argued those recreational clubs were actually a fun way to apply education while keeping kids engaged during a time of day when they could be getting in trouble. After-school funds were just the first step in the mayor's plan to scrutinize APS moneys from the city, said Chavez, who also spoke this year of putting APS under city control in the interest of accountability. The end result? A lot of blustering from the mayor turned into the lightest of breezes, as few schools received less dough. Bears and dolls took public punishment so the mayor had a platform from which to admonish our school system and further his aim of controlling it.
Worst of 2006 - Madrid Fumbles Debate
Ah, the seven seconds that shook the world—or at least New Mexico. Locked in a grueling television debate with incumbent Heather Wilson for the hotly contested District One Congressional seat, Patricia Madrid froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Ouch.
We really hate to kick a woman when she's down. On the other hand, you'd expect anyone ambitious enough to run for a major political office to have the savvy to take a public speaking class or two at the local community college. Representatives need to be able to articulate themselves in front of a camera. Madrid failed horribly. This single moment in the campaign lost her the election, partly because Wilson was smart enough to immediately turn it into a brutal campaign commercial. Double ouch.
Worst of 2006 - State Raids Pride Gym
Prompted by an ad on the back page of the Alibi, the state's Special Investigation Division (SID) raided Pride Gym. "Hot After-hours: Fri & Sat, 9 pm to 4 am," the Billboard ad read. Seven SID agents alongside seven Albuquerque police officers were said to have burst through the doors on July 1 and demand the 30 or so patrons lie face down in handcuffs, though some were naked or wearing little more than towels. SID says it was looking for illegal alcohol sales—with department-issued semi-automatic rifles.
According to the criminal complaint, after seeing gym members engaged in sexual acts, the SID agents felt officers were in danger of sexual assault. The whole thing sounds like rifle-backed homophobia to us.
Worst of 2006 - Quality of Life Initiative Fails
In countless ways, a city's greatness is defined by its support for culture and the arts. Albuquerque still has a way to go before it catches up with Santa Fe, but it's made some enormous strides in recent years.
Bernalillo County voters had an opportunity this last election to vote for a 3/16 of 1 percent increase in the gross receipts tax to create a stream of about $30 million per year to fund hundreds of arts organizations, museums and other cultural entities in the county.
It wasn't promoted very well by its supporters, and a lot of folks were concerned that the specifics of the funding weren't adequately explained. Long story short, it failed. The county needs something like this, though. Hopefully, next time around, supporters will do a better job of outlining the benefits, which—as with most cultural funding—extend far beyond the parameters of the art world.
Worst of 2006 - Red-Light Cameras Flash Away
Money-making endeavor or earnest law enforcement? The city's taken in $2.8 million from red-light cameras, and if you've seen their flashes strobing in the night, you know a lot of Burqueños are getting tickets in the mail. 2006 saw cameras go up at 10 intersections, with an 11th at Coors and Central to be operating before the year ends. Eight more are planned for 2007.
At a Dec. 18 City Council meeting, APD spokesperson John Walsh spoke of the benefit. There's been a decrease in wrecks at the monitored intersections, he says. The cameras are also cheaper than posting officers near those lights around the clock.
Still, Albuquerque attorney Paul Livingston filed a class action lawsuit in late August on behalf of city employees, including bus drivers and police officers, who were ticketed by the cameras. The suit alleged that according to state law, only uniformed officers have the authority to dispense tickets. Another suit was filed in November questioning the cameras' legality.
Worst of 2006 - Ethics Bill Fails
Twelve months or 20 years. It's a big margin. Former State Treasurer Robert Vigil could be sentenced on Jan. 24 to anywhere within that timeframe. His trial ended late September, and only one count of attempted extortion stuck, while 23 other charges dropped away.
Corruption, attempted or otherwise, is always embarrassing for a state. But when Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson couldn't get a Democratic state congress to send him an ethics reform bill during the 2006 Legislative Session ... let's just say that red face of shame got a shade rosier. Attempting, yet again, to muscle out the stain of Dem. Vigil's alleged transgressions, Richardson announced at the end of the year that 2007 would bring round two of said ethics bill.
Worst of 2006 - Westland Sells
Late this year, Westland Development shareholders voted to sell their company, and its 55,000 acres of mostly undeveloped land on the Westside, to California-based developer SunCal Companies.
The implications of the sale are massive, as the recently pawned land lies in the only direction Albuquerque can grow. SunCal wants to start development in 2007, and what they choose to plop out west can, and likely will, determine the future of our city.
But perhaps the more significant issue in play is the cultural importance of the sale. Westland was incorporated from the Atrisco Land Grant in the ’60s. Atrisco is more than 300 years old—older than the City of Albuquerque. Westland shareholders (also Atrisco heirs) divided themselves between those who wanted to sell and those who viewed the sale as a threat to their heritage. The former won, and in early December Westland signed itself over to SunCal.
Westland’s sale marks a sad scar on our region’s history.
Worst of 2006 - Mayor Shuts Down Youth Project
Oh, Mr. Mayor. Sometimes you just make things more complicated than they need to be. You really didn't need to call the kids from the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) “those people” or use big words like “repugnant” and “ghettoize.” You said yourself that their permit to use Civic Plaza for Rock Out With Your Cause Out in August was denied for perfectly legitimate reasons--why attack their form of personal expression?
We know that graffiti, when done illegally on public property, is a weak, disrespectful, shallow act—the kids at SWOP know it, too. You could have held your press conference, pointed to the fact that the permit deadline was missed and been done with it. Instead, you picked a fight with a core of Albuquerque's youth (again), dragged SWOP's name through the mud and didn't look back. You should rethink your decision on a youth department—the future of Albuquerque deserves more respect.
Worst of 2006 - Rains Clobber Unprepared City
Rains pounded Albuquerque with monumental force this summer, leaving most of our roofs leaking and giving us a taste of what it’s like to live in a city where it actually storms. But some residents were affected by the onslaught more than others.
Many homes in the Barelas and Martineztown neighborhoods were destroyed by flooding and water damage, and the blame falls to the city for failing to upgrade ancient drainage and pumping stations in the areas.
Fortunately, the city graciously accepted the blame on this blunder and passed several bills to fix the storm drainage problems, accompanied by promises that the system would be upgraded before the 2007 flood season.