Nary a single jab was thrown as the three candidates vying for mayor of Santa Fe discussed their vision for the city’s future during a Thursday evening candidate forum — but there was significant back-and-forth about the city’s tardy audit.
The candidates — Mayor Alan Webber, City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler and environmental engineer Alexis Martinez Johnson — remained cordial for the nearly 75-minute forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Santa Fe County at The New Mexican’s downtown office building.
However, the temperature rose as the topic turned to the city’s fiscal year 2020 external audit, released Monday.
Toward the end of the forum, Webber addressed the audit, submitted to the State Auditor’s Office nearly 10 months late, calling it “clean” based on the auditors’ “unmodified” opinion of financial statements.
Still, Albuquerque-based accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen reported 21 findings, including 10 deemed “significant” and eight “material” findings.
Vigil Coppler said an “unmodified” audit doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clean, but that the auditors had accurate records to complete it.
She noted the 21 findings, including 10 that “were significant and at risk of losing federal funds.”
Webber acknowledged the audit was late but said in conversations with State Auditor Brian Colón, they agreed a late audit was better than an inaccurate one.
The mayor reiterated two reasons for the late audit: The effects of COVID-19 and the release of $17.5 million in federal pandemic assistance took precedence for the city’s Finance Department.
A lack of staffing and a new accounting system also were blamed for the audit’s delay.
“We had three months to spend it or lose it, or do the audit,” Webber said. “Our Finance Department decided to help people instead of having an on-time audit. I would make that choice every time. I would rather spend $17.5 million and help the people of Santa Fe than have an on-time audit.”
Martinez Johnson said it was completely unacceptable for the city to miss state audit deadlines and pledged to ensure that would never happen again if she were in office.
“This is your taxpayer money,” she said. “If we are going to be using taxpayer money, we are going to make sure that it is on time.”
Throughout the forum, the candidates largely adhered to answering questions about issues ranging from affordable housing and water use to substance abuse and the future of the city-owned midtown campus.
Thursday’s forum contrasted with previous candidate events capped with claims of misogyny and other allegations.
Questions about affordable housing and water use kicked off the forum, and all three candidates called these the biggest issues facing Santa Fe.
Webber touted the almost 5,000 housing units in the development pipeline, adding that under his administration the city has pledged to fully fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund at $3 million.
“That is our goal,” he said. “We are on our way to making that happen. We have the resources. We have the partnerships. We have a program we are working out.”
Webber also highlighted the importance of the soon-to-come San Juan-Chama Return Flow Pipeline project, in which the city will send its effluent to the Rio Grande to build credits for the diversion of future river flows.
He noted Santa Fe’s conservation efforts over the past 25 years. Despite the city’s population increasing 25 percent since 1995, in large part through annexations, water usage has dropped by 33 percent.
Martinez Johnson said she is concerned about developers who “get the upper hand” in Santa Fe and the impact of development on local water sources. She would like to reach out to residents to make sure they are involved in discussions about increased housing density, she said.
Vigil Coppler, who said she was in favor of looking at increased building density to help solve the city’s affordable housing crisis, said a good first step would be to update antiquated city code.
Developers “aren’t going to build if they can’t afford to build it,” she said.
She added the city should expand its green building codes for single-family homes to condos and apartment complexes.
The forum then turned to one of the most heated topics in Santa Fe: the destruction of the Plaza obelisk on Indigenous Peoples Day last year.
Just days before the one-year anniversary of the obelisk’s toppling, Vigil Coppler said she was in favor of rebuilding the 152-year-old monument to Civil War soldiers, albeit without the language on one panel of the obelisk’s base dedicating it to soldiers who died in battle with “savage” Indians.
Despite this view, she said was willing to see through the city’s CHART process — a program to discuss cultural issues, including potentially insensitive public art and monuments.
“We should give it some time,” Vigil Coppler said.
Webber, who said he wished he had more than a minute to discuss the topic, agreed the community should allow CHART to play out. He called it “essential” that community members sign up, participate and make their voices heard.
“We are capable, more than any other city in America, to have these dialogues, to have these conversations,” Webber said.
Martinez Johnson, who in the past has decried the destruction of the obelisk, said she thinks it is important for Santa Fe to have not just an “ally,” but someone who represents its different cultures.
“We must respect our Indigenous community and everyone else with basic law and order,” she said.
The candidates seemed to agree that education and partnerships with local nonprofits were the best ways to help curb gun violence and substance abuse in Santa Fe. All three also agreed Santa Fe should remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants.
In a discussion on the city’s slow pace of developing the midtown campus on St. Michael’s Drive, Martinez Johnson said her plan was to use the 64-acre former college campus as a hub to train and support workers in the film industry. She added she was concerned about some of the environmental issues at the site.
The city had stuck a deal with a Dallas firm to develop the site in a massive, yearslong project, but the company and the city ended the agreement due to fiscal uncertainties amid the pandemic.
There were also concerns about the deteriorating condition of some buildings and infrastructure at the site.
Webber said he disagreed with how the question was framed, implying the project was dragging on. He said the coronavirus pandemic caused issues with the timeline, but said the city can now move forward.
He said he hopes to have zoning changes at the site done by the start of 2022 to help support development.