Now that Alan Webber has addressed the city manager position with the hiring of John Blair — a move that matters most to the mayor’s overall operation of the city — his next job is to find a police chief.
That’s the search that should matter most to Webber’s constituents. There’s no way to overstate the importance of a police chief in this community, or any community. He or she runs an operation whose employees carry guns, keep the peace and, really, set the tone for a city’s sense of itself.
If the police department works as it should, chances are the community feels better about itself. If it’s undermanned, poorly managed or unable to respond to the realities of a place with vastly different needs in vastly different areas, the chief executive, Webber, is in for a very long four years.
So, obviously, it’s a huge hire for the mayor, who bids farewell to Chief Andrew Padilla this week.
And Webber’s decision is one constituents should follow closely.
It’s time for the city, which loves to trumpet transparency but evinces precious little of it when it comes to hiring top administrators, to let the public kick the tires on a search for a new chief.
Granted, there are plenty of ways to do that, but it comes down to this: Once finalists are selected, put them through a wide-open interview process that includes a variety of sessions with the public — not just Webber, Blair and members of the City Council.
Have the hopefuls meet with police critics and police supporters. Get their thoughts on community policing — not merely the window-dressing platitudes but the actual mechanics of making it happen. Let the officers and staff of SFPD ask questions. The right kind of candidate, one who’s done homework, likely will know exactly what he or she thinks about appropriate staffing levels — a number Padilla and the Webber administration have danced around but never addressed, even before the challenges brought by the coronavirus.
Would that kind of meet-and-greet cattle call turn off some prospective candidates? You bet.
And so what? Santa Fe cops and the people they serve need a leader who’s not afraid to take on all comers. That’s the job.
Webber has said he wants a top-flight police department, and he’s ponied up more money to keep officers, not that he or the city had much choice.
Since he’s been mayor, the city also has created an Alternative Response Unit, a team that deals with calls that deal with mental health issues and homelessness. It was a smart move, and one a new chief should call for in the budget.
But in a city where crime is by no means mundane — there have been eight homicides in Santa Fe this year, including the fatal shooting by police of a suspect in a tourist-heavy area of downtown — the new chief has a chance to mold a better, smarter, more flexible department.
Is the right candidate currently employed by SFPD? It’s possible. But there’s no harm in looking beyond Santa Fe or New Mexico.
Finding the right leader, not merely a familiar face, is critical. If nothing else, the city deserves a search more involved than merely selecting the top square on the current organizational chart, as was the case when Webber selected Andrew Padilla early in his first term.
Webber convinced voters he deserved another term by promising smart, innovative leadership. This is his chance to put words into action.