John Blair, the new city manager for Santa Fe, has a big job ahead of him.
It doesn’t help that he is taking over in the COVID-19 era. That means dealing with staffing shortages; the continued spread of the coronavirus; demands for better care of parks and public spaces; requests for improved services that have nothing to do with the pandemic; and other tasks that make it clear whatever accommodations that need to be made for a pandemic do not apply to service providers, like local governments.
As outgoing City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill has described it, a city manager has three buckets of responsibilities: daily city operations, handling emergencies and strategizing for the future.
And there have been plenty of crises since March 2020, when the pandemic began. That won’t go away, but the city also needs a manager who can rebuild systems that keep the city functioning, as well as focus on long-term priorities for Santa Fe. It’s not a solo act. The current city government has a so-called strong mayor — Alan Webber just won his second term — a City Council and a team of managers ready to weigh in.
With only one no vote on Blair’s appointment, he starts with solid support. That’s important, considering the challenges Santa Fe faces. Even the one opponent, freshman Councilor Lee Garcia of District 3, said he would support Blair but would have preferred a broader search to identify the next manager. Instead, Webber found a candidate close to home. Blair had been working in the state Department of Regulation and Licensing developing rules for the fledgling cannabis industry.
His background is not a traditional one for a city manager — a degree in public administration and decades of work in city departments, for example. Blair’s bachelor’s degree is in political science from the University of Kansas, and he has a law degree from the University of New Mexico. He has worked on the staffs of various politicians, including U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.
Still, his experience at the Department of the Interior as director of intergovernmental and external affairs from 2014-16 involved supervising staff and dealing directly with the concerns of towns and cities. He also served as deputy secretary of state and chief of staff to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver from 2016-19 before moving on to Regulation and Licensing.
Raised in Santa Fe, Blair should understand what is working — and what isn’t — in his hometown. He knows the players but also will bring solid ideas from his experiences outside New Mexico. It’s a potent mix, especially since Blair is working as an at-will employee. He’s making a hefty salary, more than $170,000 a year, but he won’t get a sweet payout on the way out. Blair doesn’t have a contract.
His first challenge will be restoring confidence in city leadership. That means monitoring the status of the city’s late financial audit and ensuring the Finance Department makes all future deadlines. No excuses.
Blair will be meeting with department heads and learning how the place works. One important place to start: Meet with workers in Human Resources to understand why it can take so long to hire employees. No one wants to see Santa Fe abandon qualifications-based hiring, but outdated rules and a cumbersome process mean qualified candidates lose out. Filling vacancies must be a top priority.
That includes updating citizens on the search for a new police chief and announcing a hire. Only with the top cop on board will the Santa Fe Police Department be able to concentrate on improving recruiting, solving crimes and improving how it deals with public safety. Such recurring challenges, including maintaining public spaces, require both immediate and long-term actions. The state of Harrison Road outside the Interfaith Community Shelter remains problematic, with homeless people sleeping and living in the street.
There’s plenty facing the city — a list too long to easily encapsulate. With a healthy budget and backing of elected officials, John Blair has a special opportunity: He gets to make his hometown a better place. Now is the time to deliver.