With early voting set to start, Santa Fe’s three mayoral contenders spent the better part of two hours Monday evening casting themselves as the best pick, and for widely differing reasons.
Incumbent Alan Webber, City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler and Alexis Martinez Johnson were given equal time to tout their qualifications and vision for the city — with each throwing intermittent jabs at opponents — during a forum hosted by the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce.
Each candidate was asked questions on diverse issues, ranging from economic development and staffing to homelessness, policing and city services.
Webber drew on his record as mayor, saying his time in office made him the most qualified and most able to guide the city in the right direction in the next four years.
“I’ve faced a lot of challenges as the first full-time mayor in the city’s history,” Webber said. “I made some mistakes. I made some amazing and successful innovations. That’s how you learn to be a good mayor. You study your successes and build on them, and learn from your mistakes.”
Vigil Coppler played up her years in city administration, including human resources, to make the case that it taught her how to run things on a practical level.
She took a swipe at Webber’s statements of learning hard lessons while in office. “This not a trainee position,” she said.
“We need to get this city back on track,” Vigil Coppler said. “I am qualified to do this job. I have seen and worked for various administrations in city government where it worked. We didn’t have the kind of problems that we have today.”
Martinez Johnson, who is viewed by some as a clear underdog, had pulled out of last week’s forum hosted by the Santa Fe County Democratic Party because she deemed it too partisan. At Tuesday’s forum, she came prepared to promote her lack of political experience as an advantage in uniting various segments.
“If want to go forward, you all need to have to courage to step out of your preconceived agendas and notions and vote for the individual who can do this job and bring this community together,” Martinez Johnson said.
She added building permits get approved fairly quickly but then bog down in bureaucratic procedures. She likened it to a batter connecting with a ball but not following through on the swing.
The process for issuing permits must be streamlined and quickened to prevent builders from losing patience and going elsewhere.
Webber said the city’s land-use code is “badly out of date.”
He said he has put money into the budget to refresh the code, make it more consistent and reflect changes in development and technology. But that’s just cleaning it up, he said.
Webber argued a key change that needs to occur is a different mixed-use concept. One way is, rather than requiring residential developers to set aside land for a park, they use it to create retail within neighborhoods, he said.
“What we want are livable, walkable, sustainable neighborhoods,” Webber said. “We want housing where there are bakeries and coffee shops and pharmacies — places you can walk to or take a bike ride to.”
Vigil Coppler said money has been spent to update the land-use code, which Webber referred to, but little progress has been made. This code requires far more than some tidying up, she said, arguing it’s a huge undertaking on a matter that is a “major blueprint” for how the city grows.
One reason for the standstill is high turnover in the city’s planning and land use departments, she said.
“That’s just one department,” Vigil Coppler said. “We have about a 38 percent turnover in this city, and it’s not stopping.”
Vigil Coppler said that, as someone with a human resources background, she would pick the best qualified people to run the city, hinting Webber has failed to do so.
Vigil Coppler said the city police were shorthanded beyond Chief Andrew Padilla’s recent resignation. Hiring and recruiting the best people was tougher during the pandemic, but the mayor must bear some responsibility for services not running as well as they should, she said.
“COVID isn’t the reason for everything,” Vigil Coppler said.
That remark led to Webber firing back, later by saying he would expect a person who opposed a mask mandate to make light of COVID-19’s impact.
He said the disease caused death and disruption throughout the city, and that under his watch policies were instituted that helped get Santa Fe through it. That included creating alternative housing for the homeless, making vaccines available and imposing a stricter mandate than the state’s, he said.
Vigil Coppler said she didn’t oppose masks, but voted “no” on an ordinance she felt was flawed and unenforceable.
She said she a just-released audit shows how troubled city government is, recalling how it used to win awards for how it shined during audits.
If she were to go down a checklist of what’s going well now in the city, she’d find a lot of problems, she said.
“That’s why I’m running for mayor,” she said. “There are too many unchecked boxes.”
Webber disagreed with Vigil Coppler’s bleak assessment. And he contends that reports and audits that came out during her tenure in the city were often highly critical.
“I see Santa Fe as on the right track,” Webber said. “We’re not going back to the way it was. We’re going forward to a progressive vision of Santa Fe.”