Nobody fights against the state’s largest electric company as loudly or with more desire for publicity than Mariel Nanasi, executive director of a Santa Fe-based advocacy organization.
Her general stand is that Public Service Company of New Mexico is slow to invest in clean energy, quick to seek rate increases and intent on paying its executives millions of dollars at the expense of the little guy.
Now the tables are turned on Nanasi. A group of Santa Fe residents on Don Cubero Avenue say this high-profile activist is no friend of ordinary people.
They have tangled with Nanasi and the city government for more than two years on grounds that Nanasi is flouting Santa Fe’s land-use code for her own monetary gain.
Nanasi seemingly lost the case once, but now the same dispute is back in slightly different form.
The City Attorney’s Office in 2016 found Nanasi and her husband, Jeffrey Haas, had violated the land-use code and reneged on an affidavit she signed two years earlier regarding restrictions on her rental property.
Nanasi owns a house on Don Cubero, but she does not live there. Nor does she occupy an accessory unit that she owns on the same lot.
Under a section of the city code, Nanasi can rent only to one tenant. In correspondence with Assistant City Attorney Zachary Shandler, she admitted violating the code by renting both dwellings at the same time.
“… I get it and wanted to update you that we are complying with our agreement,” Nanasi wrote to Shandler on Aug. 4, 2017.
But Nanasi, herself a lawyer, has continued her practice of renting each unit to different families.
Now, though, Nanasi and Haas have a new argument that they say makes this permissible. They have issued only one lease for occupants of the house and the accessory unit.
Haas told me this arrangement treats all the tenants “like roommates.” Except, of course, the house and the accessory dwelling are separate and the people he refers to as roommates do not live together.
After Nanasi wrote to Shandler last year to say she would follow the city code, she rented the main house to Megan Keller. Keller is an employee of Nanasi’s at the advocacy organization New Energy Economy.
Neighborhood residents outlined what happened next in a letter of complaint to Mayor Alan Webber.
Keller moved into the main house the first week of October 2017. “Within three days, Ms. Keller began showing the [accessory] unit to Ms. Jamie Durfee, who returned on two or more occasions prior to officially moving in on Oct. 27, 2017,” the neighbors said.
City Attorney Erin McSherry said Thursday her department would review the code to determine if Nanasi’s arrangement of one lease for separate families is lawful.
Charlene Ortiz and other Don Cubero residents say the problems with Nanasi’s renters are the same, regardless of whether she somehow bills them under one lease or two.
They say Nanasi’s rental arrangement with two families has caused traffic and parking problems. Her tenants and their guests come and go at all hours. The neighborhood is less livable, and this could drive down property values, Ortiz said.
Nanasi told me one recent day she had received no complaints at all about her tenants. Neighbors scoff at this.
“She always says, ‘I didn’t know anyone was complaining,’ ” Ortiz said.
After saying there had been no troubles, Nanasi sent me a copy of a police report about a minor traffic accident on Don Cubero. A critic of Nanasi’s rental arrangement struck the unattended vehicle of Durfee, one of Nanasi’s tenants.
Nanasi said she hoped the police report would enlighten me. Then her husband, also a lawyer, phoned to advise me there is no story in this dispute, just neighborhood gossip with the aim of smearing New Energy Economy’s chief executive.
It’s usually a clear sign that there is a story when a combatant says none exists. This time is no exception.
Ortiz and others who live on Don Cubero are as upset with the city government as they are with Nanasi. The neighbors say the City Attorney’s Office didn’t do its job, permitting Nanasi to run roughshod over their interests and the code.
Shandler last year extended a deadline for Nanasi to comply with the law. He said he didn’t want to penalize Nanasi’s tenant at the time. Neighbors counter that Nanasi bore responsibility for unlawfully renting the property, but Shandler’s inaction left them to suffer for it.
Soon afterward, residents contacted Shandler, saying Nanasi had again rented her units to different tenants.
Shandler told the the neighbors to make a fresh complaint.
“The City,” Shandler wrote to them, “has moved to the 21st century and created an online computerized complaint tracking system. The best thing to do is to go to the City’s webpage and click on the item ‘Report and Request.’ This will create a CRM (complaint record management) system record.”
That’s the city at its most bureaucratic and least helpful. Shandler said he had been reassigned, so he no longer was the land-use attorney. In his view, the case was behind him. But he didn’t alert his boss or his successor about the ongoing dispute.
Instead, he told me, advising residents to create a new record for their complaints was “the best way to hold the fire to the city’s feet.”
The case turned cold. Shandler had long since passed on the option of bringing a criminal case against Nanasi because of the land-use violation.
Angered, neighbors in the spring of this year hand-delivered their petition and letters of complaint to the office of Webber, who had recently been elected mayor.
Neighbors subsequently filed a request for public records, seeking all city correspondence regarding their complaints about Nanasi. They say the city provided nothing responsive. Three of the neighbors recently filed a complaint against the city with the state Attorney General’s Office on grounds that Webber’s administration broke the public records law.
Nanasi for years has carried herself as a voice of the people. Now she faces a neighborhood that sees her as a politically connected opponent whose only interest is money.
Residents of Don Cubero aren’t focused only on Nanasi. They say they will continue fighting what they regard as their other adversary: City Hall.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.