In 1974, Blazing Saddles was a hit at the box office, ABBA was turning out hits, gas cost 55 cents per gallon and the Duke City's population was about 260,000. That was the year Albuquerque voted to adopt the mayor-Council form of government.
Today, about 546,000 people live in our desert metropolis. City Councilor Isaac Benton says that increase means it is time for a change at the Council table.
Benton is proposing to amend the decades-old City Charter and divide our nine Council districts into 13. “We have more than doubled,” Benton says. “It seems like a good time to take a look at that growth and see what it will really take to properly represent the city’s residents.”
Councilors voted in February to slice up Benton’s District 3—which encompasses the University area, Downtown and Barelas—and create a new Westside seat. Benton and the three Democrat councilors argue this will impact infrastructure funding and weaken the political influence of historic neighborhoods that often include more minorities.
The charter allows for more Council districts to be added, accommodating population growth. But this was not one of the options presented to a redistricting committee. “During the City Council redistricting analysis, there were no options considered that added districts rather than shifting boundaries,” says Brian Sanderoff, from Research & Polling Inc. Sanderoff’s company was hired to provide demographic and other analysis.
“I don’t have any particular idea of how the map should be divided up, but we have taken a look at several ways to carve up the city into 13 districts,” Benton says. The Westside, which lacks adequate representation, would have a minimum of four districts, he adds. Today, there are two massive Westside districts.
With more districts, each councilor would speak for fewer people and be able to tailor their actions to constituents’ specific needs. “Just in terms of good representation this makes sense,” Benton says. “We are a very diverse city and the additional districts would also serve to restore the voting strength of minorities.”
In addition, it would address residents’ concerns over the huge North Valley district, which would take on much of Benton's former region under February's redistricting plan.
A charter amendment must be approved in a citywide election. But first, there have to be two public hearings and the Council must agree to put the amendment on the ballot. “The issue of adequate democratic representation is important and should be put to the voters,” Benton says.
He requested a fiscal impact analysis before the Council acts on the bill. “It will not be a huge financial burden. It is only the salaries of the four new Council members and their policy analysts." Councilors’ salary after the 2013 election will bump up to $17,000 annually from $10,000. Analysts earn $50,000 per year.
“The biggest criticism is this is growing government,” Benton says, “but it is really growing representation.”
Rob Perry, the city’s chief administrative officer, says the mayor and his staff have reviewed the proposal. Via email, Berry shared his opinion: "I have confidence in our current nine City Councilors and their ability to serve the citizens of Albuquerque at a high level. Nine districts were adequate prior to redistricting and I feel nine districts are adequate now,” he says, adding, “My administration is always willing to work with individual councilors to serve their districts.”