Mayor Alan Webber on Tuesday slammed what he described as personal attacks against Public Works Director Regina Wheeler surrounding the city’s controversial streetlight conversion project, a day before the City Council was scheduled to vote on a final design.
Wheeler is spearheading the project to convert 5,600 high-pressure sodium bulbs to energy-efficient LEDs, part of the city’s larger push to go carbon neutral by 2040. The cost of the project will be covered through energy savings, according to city documents.
The project has sparked intense interest, particularly among dark-sky advocates, over the proper lighting specifications needed to protect the city’s nighttime vistas.
The City Council will discuss the project Wednesday during its evening session.
Webber said some of the emails have amounted to character assassination, including what he said were unfounded accusations of kickbacks and a lack of transparency. The mayor added there was a level of “misogyny” surrounding the attacks on Wheeler.
“She has been raked over the coals; her integrity has been questioned; her professional qualifications have been questioned,” he said. “There are people who don’t even live here who have turned this into a personal attack against one of the most qualified and diligent community-minded managers that the city of Santa Fe has ever had.”
In February, the City Council voted to approve a contract with Dalkia Energy Solutions to take on the project through a cooperative agreement that allows the city to select contracts approved by other cities in New Mexico. Dalkia Energy Solutions previously worked on Albuquerque’s streetlight conversation project in 2015.
Originally, the city discussed lights at around 3,000 kelvins — a measurement of the color temperature of a light source — on residential streets and local roads, and 4,000 on major arteries.
After a process that solicited community input, the proposal was adjusted to setting residential streetlights at 2,700 kelvins, with local and major roads set at 3,000. The lights also would include shielding and technology to allow for lights to be dimmed. According to a city memo, the design would reduce energy consumption by over 60 percent, and the overall lumen budget by over 50 percent.
However, members of the community raised concerns about the discussed kelvin level, which led the City Council to elongate the conversion timeline to engage in a community outreach process.
The city installed four demonstration sites across the city to gather input, with some manned with Dalkia and city staff members to answer questions. A website also was set up to provide information and registered community feedback.
During the process, a streetlight steering committee was formed, but the names of the committee members and the meetings originally were kept from the public.
Wheeler originally said the decision was made to shield steering committee members from harsh and consistent correspondence. Some members of the steering committee, however, have said the decision to keep names secret came from a city staff suggestion.
The committee had two meetings, which some members said did not provide enough time to actively vet and discuss the project as a whole. Only one of the meetings was open to the public.
Richard Ellenberg, a member of the steering committee, said there wasn’t enough time provided to ask enough questions surrounding the proposal. He added he didn’t feel the committee “steered” anything surrounding the project.
But Wheeler defended the process as “incredibly robust,” offering a newsletter, the demonstration sites, the working groups and the City Council hearing as examples.
“I think you will find the feedback of people who say there is not enough time are the same ones who continue to barrage us all with emails,” Wheeler said. “What their motivation is to tear up the process, I’m not sure.”
Wheeler said the majority of the approximately 220 responses gathered through the website came from residents in Districts 1 and 2. Wheeler said she didn’t believe the feedback reflected the entire city because fewer responses were received from other parts of town. Knowing that, she said, “we tried to put our ear a little closer to the ground to hear feedback from others.”
Webber defended the procurement process in selecting Dalkia, sharing an email from City Attorney Erin McSherry that stated Santa Fe’s actions fell in line with local and state statutes.
“These contracts are part of a package that includes ordinances, they were reviewed by the city’s bond council … it all goes through the public hearing process,” Wheeler said. “I feel confident it was a very good procurement.”