A quick history lesson reveals that those who have served the city in a similar role—the ones that came before what we call now—have had mixed results as leaders, as growers, as advocates for an urban settlement given to growth in fits and starts that are as unpredictable as the weather on the northern tip of the Chihuahuan desert.
Keller’s predecessor was a Republican builder named Richard Berry. His legacies include the ART transportation project and a historically significant interaction with the DOJ concerning the methods used by the city police in their daily encounters with citizens.
Before that, we’ve had a three-term moderate democrat (Martin Chávez), a progressive former land commissioner (Jim Baca), a stealthy super-bureaucratic retired community college president (Louis Saavedra) as well as a former car salesman and later convicted felon (Ken Shultz) serve at City Hall.
Before that were giants like Harry Kinney and David Rusk. They’re legends in these parts and before them, the city didn’t have a mayor, it had a city commission to lead the blooming town. Among those that held the position of chairman in that form of civic governance—which lasted from 1916 to 1974: governor Clyde Tingley and Senator Pete Dominici.
So Keller joins the ranks of the legendary, the unseen, the progressive movers and shakers and the conservative capitalists whose pictures line the walls of local government and wikipedia.
A year into his tenure, Weekly Alibi chatted with Mayor Keller about his first year, his successes, his continuing challenges and his lifelong commitment to bringing sustainable democracy, economic certainty and heavy metal music to the Duke City.
What follows then is a transcript of that meeting, which happened on a sunny Friday at Alibi HQ, as the city bustled below.
Weekly Alibi: Let’s talk about what you’ve accomplished in your first year as mayor of Albuquerque …
Mayor Tim Keller: Well, I think this year is about taking back control of our future, on a number of fronts. And so, we made some big strides; but we also had to do some little things to get our house in order. There are some basic things about hiring 100 plus people to help deliver one’s vision; all mayors have to do that, but it’s one of the most important things you do [as a new mayor]; putting a team together. But, more importantly, externally: Look, we took back control of the Rail Yards. So that’s now on us, whether we do good or bad. It wasn’t before; it was with an out-of-state company.
Oh, really, I didn't know that.
Yeah, it was a California company that had the master rights to it. So that was the issue. People were like, “Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we do that?” And the answer always was, “Because you have to ask the developer.”
So I see in your legislative priorities list that you’re asking the state to commit some funding toward the Rail Yards’ redevelopment. How’s that going to work?
Yes. So we’re trying to say, “Let’s take it as far as we can by ourselves.” We literally started the mediation today; we removed some train cars. We’ve got to do thorough mediation; we’ve got to fix up the buildings, we’ve got to find tenants and all of that. We are hoping that this process is truly a statewide priority, because of where the Rail Yards are, in the largest city in the state. It’s been 20 years and nothing has happened, more or less, except for the market, which is great. But we have to do more. Now we can at least be in charge of that task. Hopefully the Legislature will help us on a number of fronts.
Historically, Albuquerque has been left to its own, because Albuquerque had such an economic base. But, I think folks realize now the rise and fall with Albuquerque affects the state. So if Albuquerque needs some help, it’s actually a statewide priority.
Economic development and and public safety were indeed cornerstones of your platform and became important, actionable items when you became mayor. Let’s shift the conversation to public safety: How has APD evolved toward community policing during your tenure and what remains to be done with our police department’s reform efforts?
This is another area where I feel like we—instead of arguing with reforms or pushing back on them or dragging our feet through them—stepped up and said “We own this, for all the right reasons.” And so it’s been, as the monitor noted, a sea change. Our administration is fully on board with the reforms and so is the leadership over at APD. We changed out 20 people at the top of the department, of all different ranks. We brought in folks who have to believe in and buy into DOJ reforms. So that also means that we have to deliver on that [those reforms]. For example, use-of-force was an issue no one wanted to talk about before. And they [the department] had, like these proxy fights about other things instead of really dealing with the core issue, which is use-of-force. We said we are going to tackle that head-on. Just a month ago or so, we did come together with all the Amici groups, the different advocates and civil rights groups—and APD and their union—and the monitor. And we all agreed on most of the new use-of-force policies. That is a huge step forward.
Now, we have to do all the training at the academy, we have to train all the new officers; it’s a long road. Everything we are trying to do is a long road, but we’re taking deliberate steps down that path. I think that’s been the biggest difference, whether it’s the Rail Yards or APD or the ART project.
Let’s talk about ART …
We decided, I decided to make the best of it, no matter what side [of the project] we were on. When we came in, basically, the route had been determined and the money was already spent. So we had to fix the route. We did that. Then we had to make sure we got the [reimbursement] money from the feds. We did that. And then we had to fix the bus issue. That, of course, has become much more difficult. But last week, we took control of that, too. We gave BYD a chance; I really wanted electric buses, which is why we gave this a year to work. But the bottom line is that they [BYD] can’t deliver the technology we need.
So, similar to other things, we are going to push forward on our own. We’re going to get a new vendor, New Flyer—they make a lot of buses—and we are going to eventually get this route up and running. We couldn’t do that with BYD. They would say all the right things, but …
The new buses are clean diesel, that sounds like an oxymoron, but they’re much cleaner than older models. We want to phase in electric; as soon as we find a bus that works, subsequent new buses will be electric. Right now, bus companies can’t meet our requirements for battery life. So we’ll do these [new diesel buses] but they are built to be flexible. We can use them on Rapid Ride, we can use them on normal routes and we can run them on the ART route. That’s the other thing we love about the new vendor: They’ll build us a bus that will work anywhere in the city. That’s what we should have had all along.
It also seems like there’s been a successful reduction of crime in the city, and though I argued last week that the homeless problem has gotten worse, violent crimes and property crimes are down. Let’s chat about that.
By all measures, crime is down in a lot of areas, for the first time in almost a decade. The areas where that’s happening are around auto theft, burglary and all sorts of misdemeanors. That’s great news for Albuquerque, but look: The absolute level is way too high. Violent crime has been basically flat. We’ll see how the year-end looks, but it should be a little bit lower or flat. So, we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to crimes of passion. And those usually involve domestic violence or homicide.
Although there have been fewer homicides in Burque this year …
Yes. Right now, we are trending lower. Which of course is a good thing, even in terms of turning the corner. This is the first time the city has seen this in years. I think it’s a lot of things but look: Among our law enforcement officers, there’s new leadership and we’re engaging a community policing plan. And we are also integrating new ideas. For example, as regards addiction, we’ve got to address crime from all sides. We are acknowledging that; we have these specialized teams that go out and deal with folks that have an addiction. We try to get them help instead of throwing them in gaol.
A lot of times these people are also homeless and don’t have basic needs covered, that may lead to crime, I think.
A lot of them are left with nowhere to go because of the state dismantling the behavioral health system. I am hopeful our new governor will act quickly to rebuild that. When there is no alternative to offer, some people end up on the street.
It’s a snowball effect … and personally, I’m glad we have someone at the helm who recognizes that and so we’re starting to attack the base issues, like addiction and homelessness.
Thanks. This year, the city opened our winter shelter early and we are hoping to keep it open year-round. And we are hoping to provide services there, too.
I also read about that in your legislative request.
So this is where we can get some help from the state and county. We can do this, at least in the short-term, literally for people, to get them help because right now, there is no singular place for the homeless to go. There are lots of one-off places, depending on criteria—whether you’re sober or not, whether you’re married or not—but we’ve got to create a place where people can get help in the short-term as well as get sorted into necessary services. The Westside shelter is a terrible place to do this in, it’s an old gaol. … But I believe in urgency. It’s the only thing that will work for now. We are asking the Legislature, UNMH and the county for help to do a couple of centers around town. [They’d be] decentralized and work on several fronts. We have, I think there, a long-term vision. I don’t want another year to go by with no place for folks to go.
The other thing that comes to mind, in terms of issues we’ve chatted about for a couple of years, is the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits. Is there still an issue there?
Yes. We’re going to do an update to the public on this issue in the next few weeks. Here’s a preview: Again we said we aren’t going to make excuses, we are going to own this. So, we came up with a plan to deal with a backlog of more than 4,000 kits. That plan is in place and we are hitting our targets. That’s what we are going to go over in a few weeks. We are processing much faster; hundreds of kits have now been processed from the backlog. … I am actually optimistic about this. This is one of the things, that over the course of our first term, we are going to end the backlog. Like a lot of the issues that face Albuquerque, though, it’s going to take all three to four years to resolve. It’s all about prevention.
And that has to do with getting more resources for all aspects of crime, which include investigators and crime lab technicians. When we say we need more officers that’s just shorthand. We need more resources at every level. We need paralegals to help with prosecution, we need techs to process rape kits. We need experts to help with homeless folks who suffer from psychological issues. We include all of that when we talk about resources.
It sounds to me like everything is tied together. If we start at a lower level, with education, shelter and the economic sustainability, citizens will be rewarded with the opportunity to lead productive, peaceful lives in the city.
You got it. I hope that’s our thing with the state this year, with the extra money and the lawsuit, finally, maybe our schools are going to get the funding they need. We are all in for that. In the meantime we’re going to focus on the summer [education programs] and on early childhood development. We are putting in a request to build more early childhood development centers. That should be part of the statewide plan too.
So there is progress for the people, but what about Burque’s animal population?
There were so may issues in the Animal Welfare department. We fired who we could fire and moved those we weren’t allowed to fire. We dealt with discipline; there was even a sort of scandal where we were selling puppies to Colorado. It was terrible. But we put a director in there, Danny Nevarez, who is very counterintuitive, not an animal person. He’s done wonders and cleaned up the place. And he listens. We did pair him with an expert, the [former] animal control manager from Tucson. That team is outperforming our expectations every month. I think that, in a couple of years, we are going to be at the forefront of humane practices.
Thoughts as you head for year two in a successful administration?
We’ve got a sort of sober optimism. We believe the road is long ahead and there will be challenges. But we are going to address them in all their complexity. We don’t believe there is a silver bullet solution. But like I said before, I believe we have turned the corner. We are going to keep plodding along. Over the long-run that will lift the city up. The other thing is about embracing the One Albuquerque concept, the One Burque concept. That’s about owning our core history and diversity, it has to do with our gente. But it’s also a call to action. We are saying here are hundreds of ways you can help the city. We are coming up with all these ways that we can come together as a city, to help deal with our biggest challenges. That’s what One Albuquerque is all about. That’s what I’m excited for next year.