It was cold as heck but clear as a morning bell sounding hope and redemption from the belfry of your favorite neighborhood church on the morning of the annual State of the City Address. This year’s event was held at the Albuquerque Convention Center.
Our reporter noted it was about 24 degrees at 9 in the morning in Burque. The streets were nearly empty except for a large throng of homeless folks waiting for food and bottled water at the corner of Fourth Street and Central Avenue.
At the convention center, a big fire truck had its ladder extended and two men were climbing it to the top. The Animal Welfare Department was there early, too, with a van packed full of adoptable dogs and cats. Inside, a couple young and burly city cops stood sentry and were helpful with getting people where they needed to go in a big building so far filled only with tons of tables and chairs.
After picking up his pass and checking to make sure that Alibi Staff Photographer Eric Williams was on the list—telling the friendly check-in staff he’d be back after a hearty breakfast—our reporter retreated to his car, where he listened to the latest news being beamed into his vehicle via a satellite sitting somewhere on the southern horizon in geostationary orbit.
On the way home, he passed the new Downtown grocery story and was glad for it, even as he rolled past a trio of windblown homeless folks sharing a bottle of brandy on the adjacent street corner and shouting to the passing cars.
From 10am in the morning, until about 1:30pm that afternoon, when the Mayor spoke, the city held a celebration of itself at the Convention Center. By the time our reporter returned at 10:45am, there was a massive American flag draped from the fire engine ladder he had seen earlier. It waved authoritatively in front of the convention center as he entered.
Inside, a couple dozen city departments and divisions had booths set up. Each booth was staffed by knowledgeable municipal servants who were ready to tell the story of how Keller’s election two years ago had set the city on a new course and how, over the past year, that course had become a successful path leading to Albuquerque’s brighter future.
There were also a significant number of uniformed Albuquerque Police Department officers on hand for the civic party. Their uniforms ranged from the traditional outfit used by beat cops in this town to some sporty attire worn by athletic bicycle patrolmen and patrolwomen. The snazzy dress uniforms of the cadre’s leadership and the spiffy and shiny parade-ready costumes of the honor guard were a nice touch.
But the group of officers wearing full camouflage military gear—with helmets, utility belts, canteens and desert hiking boots—were out of place at a community event. We get it, they’re citizens, too, and want to represent. But the city police is not a military force and should not be depicted as such, especially at public events. Given the recent officer-involved shooting of a transient on Central Avenue, it’s hoped that in 2020, the Keller administration will be more circumspect about the use and public placement of militarized police units under his command.
Of course, every one of the city employees interviewed at the State of the City celebration were helpful and civic-minded. So there has been a clear change of culture in the past few years and that’s even reflected in the presentation of departments as diverse as the public arts program, economic development and family and community services. Then there’s the Office of Community Engagement, which the Keller administration uses to recruit volunteers into a system designed to remake Albuquerque for the better over the course of many years.
Sherri Brueggemann is the City of Albuquerque Public Art Urban Enhancement Division Manager. She told Weekly Alibi she was excited to tell the public how much public art there is in Albuquerque, saying “The public art program is 41 years old and we have over 1000 works of art spread over the entire city.” Asked about recent acquisitions, Brueggemann related the fact that her program works in two-year cycles and that the recent passage of bond issues related to public art meant that 2020 would be a great year, concluding that “Community members should be on the lookout for a lot more public art in 2020.”
Around the corner from Brueggemann’s artistic display station, the Economic Development Department was busy informing citizens about the strides they made this past year. Weekly Alibi spoke to Jennifer Esquivel, the department’s marketing and communications manager.
Esquivel told our reporter that “Last year, we had a really great year. We signed [on] four local economic development action projects. Those are new businesses coming to Albuquerque to do business here.” Those big outside entities include NBC Universal, she said, but added that the Buy Local program sponsored by her department is also doing well. “Buy Local is a big initiative for Mayor Keller. There’s a balance of two forces. We’re building an economy for everybody. Along with bringing in traditional economic development, we’re also focused on small business support.”
We also spoke to the folks from the department of family and community services. Gilbert Ramírez, the Deputy Director for health programs, told Weekly Alibi that his department provides a multitude of services to Burque’s most fragile citizens, including behavioral health and social services. Ramírez said his program provides treatment for addiction as well as offering “utility assistance, rent assistance, food boxes for the community as well providing resources for housing Albuquerque’s homeless population. We also provide early childhood development at our community centers.” He concluded by saying his biggest goal at the celebration was to let people know “how many services the city has available through family and community services.”
As our reporter walked around all the civic displays, it became apparent that the mayor’s speech was imminent. Walking over to Kiva Auditorium, he ran into Nick Vottero, one of the Mayor’s civic engagement coordinators. Vottero was excited to relate that, “This administration believes in opening up city government to make opportunities available for everyone in the community. The One Albuquerque program is about making the city safer, more inclusive and more innovative,” Vottero said as citizens found their seats in the auditorium.
Of course, Mayor Keller’s speech was the highlight of the day. Before the Mayor spoke, there were many introductions and a local poet, Damien Flores, read a selection of Burque-themed sonnets and stories, imbuing the meeting with a nostalgic yet hopeful-
After all the introductions, Keller went on and on about his successes over the past year, including the stellar transformation of the Animal Welfare Department and the return of a vibrant local economy. He also tempered his remarks, reminding Burqueños how much work has yet to be done in areas such as homelessness, crime and the fine-tuning of and public acceptance of ART.
Keller said the city “was committed to forging its own path,” as he related his own struggles with a job that has a vast number of components to reckon with on a daily basis.
Keller also said that his guiding principles were to listen, learn and act. He then announced that progress made within the Albuquerque Police Department had led his office to ask a federal judge to release the city from part of the DOJ settlement, due to solid compliance by the department in the past two years.
Keller would like the city to manage some items of the compliance settlement, ostensibly allowing more APD officers to resume the task of fighting crime in the city. “We decided to create a compliance bureau to work with the DOJ and not against them. ... Next month we are walking into court and asking to end the outside monitoring of nearly one-quarter of all those [DOJ] requirements.”
“Addiction fuels gang activity and domestic violence,” Keller reminded those present before announcing that his administration had made progress in municipal policing, including ending the rape kit-backlog and being on track to hire 100 additional police offers per year during his tenure.
Though the Keller administration has indeed been successful in a multitude of ways and there are a solid set of reasons to be hopeful—and even as the Mayor’s speech focused on public safety and health—this narrative makes clear the problems the local administration faces. Despite heroic efforts, homelessness is still increasing in The Duke City. And though officer-involved shootings are down significantly, the public—as noted by local activist group RISE New Mexico—is still troubled by a militarized local police force that seems to flex its muscles in actions against the very homeless citizens that the mayor’s workers are working so hard to help.
That big American flag out front may have been cool as heck, but you can’t use it as a either a blanket or shield.