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.