Once a week, dozens of mayors from around New Mexico hop on a conference call.

They spend an hour asking questions and getting updates on how to implement the state’s public health orders in their cities.

Yet some also have been doing something else — complaining about the Governor’s Office.

They say the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, which is in charge of the state’s COVID-19 response, hasn’t been giving enough guidance or advance notice to help them prepare for changes in health restrictions as the state gradually reopens the economy.

“The communication was seriously lacking and has been the entire time,” Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova, who participates in the calls organized by the Municipal League, said in an interview.

At the same time, other mayors across the state are praising the governor’s response to the pandemic as well as her office’s communication.

“I think the public health measures taken by the state have been effective, practical, well thought out and data-driven,” Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said. “And at least as far as Santa Fe is concerned, they’re met with great compliance and very positive outcomes.”

It’s a tale of two states: the New Mexico that lauds the governor’s actions and appears to implement her directives without a hitch and the New Mexico that carries them out kicking and screaming.

While political partisanship may drive some of that contrast, it could also be the product of other factors — geographic, cultural and economic. The geographic angle is hard to miss, with cities like Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe largely in lockstep with the governor.

But the farther you get from the state capital — and in many cases, the smaller the city — resistance is palpable. Though Grants Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks’ defiance of the governor’s stay-at-home order is well documented and sparked legal battles, less obvious but no less genuine is the frustration some mayors voice on the weekly calls. Many take issue with what they see as insufficient guidance and communication.

Cordova said that when the state shut down businesses — and now, as some are reopening — the governor has announced new measures without much warning and lacking certain details, leaving him unable to help locals comply and unable to answer their persistent questions.

For instance, he said, when Lujan Grisham announced May 13 that everyone in the state had to wear a mask, Belen businesses didn’t have enough time to obtain them for their employees before the order went into effect. He added that the state didn’t make it clear whether local authorities were supposed to enforce the new rule.

“We’ve received really no guidance or information about how to enforce it,” Cordova said.

Española Mayor Javier Sanchez, also a restaurant owner, said eateries and salons have not had enough information from the state about when and how they will be able to open. While the governor recently said they will likely be able to restart business June 1, there’s still uncertainty, and owners are in the dark about whether to start buying supplies, he said.

“When we look at salons and some of the high-contact places, they’re not getting any guidance whatsoever,” said Sanchez, a Republican.

Some mayors, such as Cordova and Eunice Mayor Billy Hobbs, said they’ve had trouble communicating directly with the Governor’s Office, in some cases sending queries or proposals and not hearing back.

“You come out with the weekly news conference or whatever, but that’s about all the information that we get,” Hobbs said. “I mean, we don’t get heads up or input.”

Asked about these complaints, the Governor’s Office said it communicates with local leaders as much as it can, but it’s not always possible given the volume of work officials are facing.

“There’s a lot happening and a lot changing, and the frustration is to a degree understandable,” said spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett. “But we know every New Mexican is sacrificing right now, and part of that is everyone, including these mayors, doing their part to go above and beyond in disseminating essential public health information to their constituencies in a timely fashion.”

She added that the Mayors’ Council on Economic Recovery, a group of mayors that meets regularly with Lujan Grisham’s chief of staff, John Bingaman, to advise on the reopening of the economy, was put together “with geographic diversity front of mind” and is “communicating with regional counterparts.”

“If mayors are concerned, we will be sure to reach out to the league again and strategize about how we can better get information to local leaders,” Sackett said.

If some smaller-city mayors are frustrated, bigger-city mayors appear much more satisfied.



Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, for instance, said his city has been “actively” working together with the state.

“Our team at the city provides productive input at all levels, including between the governor and myself, about what’s best for Albuquerque,” Keller said.

Webber said he has had no problems regarding communication, and he added that the state has issued a steady and prompt stream of useful information about the pandemic.

“The governor’s press conferences have been steady, regular, easy to find and watch,” he said.

Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull said monitoring the spread of COVID-19 was a dynamic and complex task for the state, and new data sometimes doesn’t come in until the last minute.

“The governor and those in her office are basing some of the decisions that they’re making on moment-by-moment numbers and data that’s coming in,” he said. “I think they’re being extremely cautious about the process.”

Hull said he has heard the frustrations of some mayors expressed on the Municipal League calls and has brought them up to the Governor’s Office.

“They have consistently committed to trying to get us as much information as quickly as possible,” he said about the executive branch.

The divide among mayors may not be hard to decipher; it’s likely some political belief is at play. On a national level, President Donald Trump and Republicans have constantly pushed to reopen, while many Democrats have taken a more cautious approach.

New Mexicans have followed that script, too. The majority of Republican state senators sent the governor a letter demanding she immediately open the economy, while House GOP legislators asked the U.S. attorney general to look into a possible violation of civil rights due to the state’s public health orders.

But the political narrative isn’t so clear-cut. Hicks of Grants is a Democrat, as is Belen’s Cordova.

And there are Republicans working closely with the Governor’s Office, including Rio Rancho’s Hull. He’s co-chairman of the mayors’ council.

Silver City Mayor Ken Ladner suggested part of the divide might simply stem from the fact that certain areas of the state have had relatively few COVID-19 cases.

“I can understand the governor’s logic behind wanting to treat the state as a whole, but down here in southwest New Mexico, we really haven’t had that many cases,” Ladner said. “I think that using best practices and good common sense, we could operate safely.”

Republican Sen. Bill Payne, who broke with his caucus by not signing the letter to the governor, said the COVID-19 threat has been closer to home for many Albuquerque residents than those in some rural areas. He noted that his own perspective about the virus was affected when a nursing home close to his residence had a large outbreak.

“I saw what it was doing right there,” Payne said. “I’m not surprised urban settings are more concerned with what they’re seeing than farmers and ranchers.”

Sanchez of Española also said geography is a factor and people in small towns have a more independent mindset.

“I think it also has to do with the fact that in rural communities, people don’t want to be told what to do,” he said.

The economic makeup of cities’ revenue can have an additional effect — many of those heavily dependent on tourism are hesitant to open up quickly because that could bring in many people from other states and countries, potentially accelerating the spread of the virus.

Sackett said she doesn’t believe there is an urban-rural divide, noting the mayors’ council is composed of officials from different geographies, including a number of rural mayors.

“I would not say that’s true at all,” she said.

She also noted that in recent days, mayors from smaller cities such as Clovis, Hobbs and Ruidoso have done public service announcements shared by the governor about the importance of wearing face coverings.

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Reporter

Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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(20) comments

Anita Vigil

I was just in Farmington and i could not believe how many people were walking around without masks, In stores, gas stations. No wonder they are in trouble with the virus spread. Their Mayor needs to enforce this. These doctors are doing the best they can. They need to stop the traffic from the Navajo nation into Farmington to help these doctors. There is no excuse for this to happen.

Connie Lopez

Doubtful you'll see any change in Farmington. That portion of NM heavily GOP is the only reason you witnessed this. If you looked closely, you may have also noticed all the MAGA hats and flying of the confederate flag. Personally, I avoid Farmington travel because it's quite ugly, armpit of NM.

Amy Earle

My point Dr Johnson is do these rural communities have the adequate medical resources to serve their citizens should they be touched by the virus in the future? None of us know that rural America will be permanently spared from a virus that is still among us. Like it or not we have no vaccine, no effective treatments, and little immunity. Critical thinking involves being logical and prepared. Can these areas of the state say they are prepared? If they can’t then they are relying on magical thinking not critical thinking.

Connie Lopez

"Do these rural communities have the adequate medical resources to serve their citizens should they be touched by the virus in the future?" Answer: No, but it really does not matter.

Mike Johnson

IMO, one of the best things the Guv did early on (though she ignored the lessons learned from Washington state and NYC about targeting and focusing on nursing homes and the elderly with co-morbidities) was to establish a hospital plan for NM. The plan they had was to move cases from rural areas before they became overwhelmed, into the 3 large medical treatment cities, ABQ, SF, and LC. The rural hospitals even on a regular day do not have enough expertise and facilities to do very much. I have relatives who routinely are moved from places like Roswell and Ft. Sumner, to ABQ for treatments, that is common NM practice. The rural areas cannot be prepared for something like this, that is why the Guv's plan was so essential. It has not been used so far, as obviously this situation has not gotten anywhere close to the flawed models they were using in early April, which panicked and spread fear widely.

Ramon David

People from McKinley County have been moved to Albuquerque for treatment:

https://www.abqjournal.com/1454547/surge-still-a-problem-for-gallup-hospitals-ex-most-of-the-new-covid19-cases-are-from-mckinley-and-san-juan-counties.html

Amy Earle

NM has some unique challenges. We border the Navajo Nation and we all know the tragedy that has unfolded there. Areas by it have been severely affected. Some of our Pueblos have struggled as well. We have federal run ICE facilities and very rural areas that either have no hospital or would have to travel far away to one. We border anything goes TX and we border Mexico. I know it is hard for more rural areas that have so far been left relatively untouched by the virus, but I think given our unique challenges the conservative approach to reopening is smartest and best. One possibility is to do what NY has done. Each area of the state must prove they have adequate PPE’s, testing and contract tracing, and hospital abilities to handle a surge in patients before they can reopen. Most of these more rural areas likely can’t meet this criteria presently. The mayors in these areas need to formulate a plan. While it is true some areas haven’t seen what we have in more urban areas it doesn’t mean there won’t be a second wave at some point that would be a catastrophe for small areas with few medical resources. Planning how this would be handled is smart. The whole state will be much better off if every corner of our state has a solid plan. At this juncture it doesn’t appear that is the case.

Connie Lopez

The only plan small communities have is "NIMBY", so it's insignificant. And in a way, they may be correct. People who choose to live in dirty, congested areas like Bernalillo county, NYC, etc., experience wrath of COVID-19 more so than smaller, less congested communities.

Mike Johnson

Yes, it is obvious the big cities are run by people who have to be in lock-step with this tyrannical Guv, for political reasons. They are the kind who follow orders, and since the Guv is in charge of everything in their lives, and they actually trust her authority, they follow her orders without question or comment. In smaller towns, less beholden to her authority and power base, they think independently and critically, they are the ones who are real leaders, not slavish followers. They also know the Guv wants there to be no distinctions between a place with no to little problems, and the few counties where there is an issue. One-size-fits-all is what lazy, intellectually challenged dictators do.

ron deener

EXACTLY!

Connie Lopez

"The majority of Republican state senators sent the governor a letter demanding she immediately open the economy, while House GOP legislators asked the U.S. attorney general to look into a possible violation of civil rights due to the state’s public health orders." Do you honestly believe William Barr, U.S. Attorney General, cares what a small group of NM GOP senators think? Give me a break. That crazy letter made its way to the round file.

ron deener

That's too bad because I wrote to Barr also pleading for help with this out of control dictator too. I am not

That's too bad because,although I am NOT Republican, I wrote to Barr also as well as Trump to plead for help with this out of control dictator.

Connie Lopez

@ Ron: At least small group of GOP NM senators letter was likely read by William Barr's aides, then thrown promptly in the trash. Your letter, on the other hand, went directly to the trash. I think you may have far more success addressing your letter complaining of MLG to Santa Clause or the tooth fairy.

Peter Wyman

Here in Grant County, where Silver City is located, we've had 16 total confirmed cases. 13 of those cases were reported before April 20. The Harvard Medical School states that a person is contagious for 7 - 10 days after being symptomatic...at most, 14 days. So those 13 cases are no longer contagious. Of those tested and confirmed cases, a maximum of three are contagious.

Meanwhile, our businesses are hanging on by a thread.

One size does NOT fits all.

Connie Lopez

@ Pete: You may be right. Don't know. As for local businesses "hanging on by a thread," tell them to get a loan. Interest rates are pretty low right now.

ron deener

How are they ever going to pay back a loan when they can only open at 20%. We'll be lucky if they can even stay in business.

Connie Lopez

@ Ron: Then another option might be a small business bailout by Federal government. If that's not doable, then small business can file Chapter 11 bankruptcy--it worked for our U.S. president.

ron deener

Exactly. I'm from Grant County too and I completely agree with you.

Connie Lopez

Ron Deener = still flies the confederate flag down in uuugly Silver City, the armpit of NM. Seriously, what's there?

Charles Andreoli

"what's there?" For starters, Not You.

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