Alibi V.20 No.20 • May 19-25, 2011 

Council Watch

Suddenly Partisan

People packed the Council chambers in support of libraries, animals and blue-collar city workers. The Monday, May 16 meeting centered around passing a budget. As a result, an ideological crack split the nonpartisan Council down party lines. Democrat Councilor Debbie O’Malley, who's nearing the end of her second term, walked out of the meeting just before the budget vote. Other Democrat councilors expressed disgust and said Republican councilors highjacked the budget.

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Budget Divide

Two versions of a $467 million budget were up for approval. Councilor Brad Winter’s draft would begin saving $50 million for Mayor Richard Berry's “ABQ the Plan.” Winter's measure shifted about $3 million out of the operating budget into funding Berry's future quality-of-life projects. Other budget highlights in Winter’s bill included: a 1 percent raise for city employees making $50,000 a year or less; the cutting of more than 150 vacant jobs; and funding the police department for 1,100 officers.

Councilor Ken Sanchez introduced a competing budget that left the $3 million in the operating budget to fill vacant positions in Animal Welfare and the library system. It also included small raises for all city employees.

The Republican budget passed on a 5 to 3 vote, with O’Malley having already left.
Councilors O’Malley, Sanchez, Garduño and Benton asked that the budget discussion be postponed to allow the Council and the public to review changes made two business days before the meeting. These changes, they said, did not get a public airing. The four Democrats were seeking consensus, but they didn't get it.

Sanchez said Winter’s rewritten Berry budget “made a mockery of the budget process.” Sanchez went on to add that the mayor never talked to him about the budget. After the Democrat councilors tried to move more than a dozen amendments, it became clear that the five Republican councilors were going to stick together. They shot down every one.

Councilor Garduño said, “I thought we were supposed to be here to represent the people of Albuquerque, but I guess I was wrong. We are supposed to be nonpartisan. What a terrible place we have devolved to. We have never acted this way before.”
Traditionally, party politics echoing national agendas are kept out of the city arena. Watching the Council divide along party lines was distressing. O’Malley, Benton, Garduño and Sanchez all lobbied to defer budget approval until the Council could study the Republican budget and pursue a compromise. City residents deserve consensus-building so the city operates for the benefit of all.

Winter’s budget was crammed past the Council without any effort to pause and think. A successful budget needs to go through the normal vetting process. Albuquerque residents should be concerned that partisan politics reared its ugly head in city government. A wise mayor would veto the budget, sending it back for public and Council scrutiny, debate and consensus. Sanchez, Garduño and Benton should have joined O’Malley, stopped the vote and forced Berry to face the Council and work out a compromise.
Blink Off

After numerous extensions, councilors were finally asked to put a one-year contract with red-light camera operator Redflex on the agenda for approval. Several extensions kept the cameras clicking over the last year or so while the city negotiated with the Arizona company. The cameras snap photos of red-light runners at 14 intersections. The fine is $75 a pop. The Council will take up the contract proposal at its next meeting on Monday, June 6.
Without explanation, Councilors O’Malley, Garduño, Benton, Sanchez and Dan Lewis opposed putting the item on the agenda. Lewis introduced a separate proposal that would put the cameras up for a citywide vote in October. He reminded the Council that the use of the red-light camera program costs the city about $100,000 a month, and there are about $10 million in outstanding fines. Not putting the contract on the agenda turns off the red-light cameras on May 24 when the contract extension runs out. The contract will be on the next agenda about two weeks later, and if approved, it will increase the number of cameras from 14 to 24. Even though the contract is said to be geared to make the program pay for itself without draining the city coffers, it’d be a better idea to get rid of the cameras and replace them with police officers. That way, the infractions would go through the legal system instead of before hearing officers. At the very least, as Lewis said, the city should put the use of the cameras out to a public vote.