Editor’s Note: This three-part series reports on which candidates showed up at Tuesday’s forum at the Albert J. Lyon Event Center and what they revealed about their qualifications and grasp of the challenges facing the bodies they seek to lead. Part 3 covers the candidates running for City of Elephant Butte mayor and council.
Three community members organized a local government candidates’ forum on Oct. 19 at Sierra County’s Albert J. Lyon Event Center. Village of Williamsburg resident and community event planner Denise Addie hosted, while Elephant Butte real estate agent and resident Cathy Vickers and Truth or Consequences real estate agent and resident Sid Bryant served as moderators of the candidates Q & A sessions.
The local governments included in the forum were the Truth or Consequences Municipal School Board (see Part 1); the Village of Williamsburg Board of Trustees and the City of Truth or Consequences City Commission (see Part 2); and the City of Elephant Butte Council and Mayor.
Addie said the candidate questions were generated by local residents from each jurisdiction. Candidates chose their questions from a hat, but since there were only three or four questions to choose from, nearly the same questions were answered by each candidate. [See clarification about the duplication of questions at the end of this story.]
Each candidate was given one minute for an introductory statement and another minute to make a closing statement after the Q & A.
Running for a four-year term as mayor are incumbent Elephant Butte City Councilor Michael J. Williams, former Elephant Butte City Manager David M. Duvall and retired federal worker Phillip Ward Mortensen. Edna Trager, the current mayor, is running for a city council seat.
Under a city manager-city council form of government, the mayor does not vote unless there is a tie among the four city councilors.
PHILLIP WARD MORTENSEN
Mortensen worked for the federal government for 35 years. He served for 25 years with the U. S. Air Force and then with the Bureau of Reclamation, followed by a stint with the Department of Homeland Security in Tucson. “If you’re wondering, I’m the one who shut down the [Elephant Butte] dam [in the aftermath of 9/11].”
Asked his opinion about the Sierra del Rio Golf Course, which is owned and heavily subsidized by the City of Elephant Butte, Mortensen said: “I like golf. It’s a source of recreation. I’m also practical. I don’t want to throw money after bad things. But I see new construction there and RVs nearby. I don’t know the economics [of the golf course], but I will look into it.”
Mortensen was given the opportunity to say why he is a better choice for mayor than his opponents. Mortensen said he didn’t know the qualifications of the other two candidates and couldn’t claim superiority. On the other hand, he said, “I suck at retiring,” and asserted that his time stationed at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, equivalent to a small town with “5,000 residents and five fire stations,” gave him experience similar to that required of the mayor of Elephant Butte.
Almost every Elephant Butte candidate was quizzed about how they would improve the city’s planning and zoning code. “I see a postage-stamp effect,” Mortensen said, noting that the town was a “fish camp” prior to incorporating as a municipality in 1998. “I see fancy houses next to smaller places or RVs,” Mortensen said, adding: “Some of our commercial lots should be decorated. I see broken down equipment on the main boulevard.”
During his closing statement, Mortensen said in all seriousness: “I’d like to get Dairy Queen back.”
DAVID M. DUVALL
Duvall retired in 2014 and moved to Elephant Butte to what he called his “forever home.” He shared that he had recently spent $100,000 on its remodeling.
“Bored in retirement,” Duvall took the job of Elephant Butte city manager in 2018. “I had to resign in 2019 because of corruption. It’s pretty bad.” He offered no evidence to support his claim.
In answer to a question about his opinion of the municipal golf course, Duvall said: “That’s a touchy subject. The city is losing money hand over fist, about $400,000 a year. Somebody has to get it viable. I would talk to the other [local government entities] about how to save it or change it.”
As for the changes he would make to the city’s planning and zoning code, Duvall said: “The first thing I would do is make sure the right names are inserted.” When the city was incorporated more than 20 years ago, Duvall said, many of the ordinances were cut and pasted from the codes of other cities, and names such as Yuma and Taos had yet to be removed from Elephant Butte’s municipal code. Duvall said he would also amend the city’s zoning ordinances to enable the creation of a “real business zone.”
Asked why he is the best choice for mayor, Duvall demurred. “We’re all trying to make it a better city,” he said of himself and his opponents.
MICHAEL J. WILLIAMS
Williams was a law enforcement officer for 30 years, including 10 years with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, where he ended up with the rank of captain. Williams was appointed to the Elephant Butte city council in 2019 to take Edna Trager’s place when she was appointed mayor upon the resignation of then Mayor Eunice Kent. He took two years of classes to become an advanced certified municipal officer.
Like his opponents, Williams was quizzed about the municipal golf course. “I moved here in 2015 to become [the course’s] general manager,” he revealed. The prior owner “was having a hard time with employees walking out with . . . you name it.” Williams “reduced his debt” before the owner donated the course to Elephant Butte in 2017. City officials then told him that “they didn’t need a general manager.”
Williams stated his belief that “all benefit” from the presence of the golf course. “When I used to do tournaments, you’re talking 100 players who eat and stay and tour the attractions,” he explained. “It needs to be managed properly, which it isn’t now. The city has probably lost $1.2 million on it. We have to correct it.”
Williams was willing to answer the question about why he was the best choice for mayor. “I have more experience, being a mayor before [in Rio Rancho]. I was a lobbyist in Santa Fe for 10 years. I know how to write ordinances and legislation. I could hit the floor running. I’ve already been on the council.”
Asked what changes he would make to the zoning code, Williams said it is outdated and not universally enforced. “I don’t care for selective enforcement,” he said. “It’s not what you know but who you know.”
Williams gave an example of selective enforcement. “I was told I had 48 hours to take down my [election] sign because it violated a resolution. In all my years [in law enforcement] I have never enforced a resolution because it is not law; ordinances, yes.” Williams said he was later told he didn’t have to take down the sign.
During his closing statement, Williams urged voters to call him directly at (505) 980-8844 instead of seeking information about him from others. “I believe in getting answers straight from the horse’s mouth. I don’t care for rumors.”
There are three positions open on Elephant Butte City Council, two for four-year terms and one for a two-year term. On the ballot, three people are running to fill the two four-year seats, and voters are instructed in small letters: “Vote for up to two.” The choices are Edna Trager, Cathy Lyn Harmon or Orlando A. Saavedra.
Listed separately on the ballot is the two-year position, with Kim W. Skinner named as the sole candidate. Skinner has served on the city council for 14 years and is currently mayor pro tem. She did not attend the candidate forum, Addie said, “due to health reasons.”
ORLANDO A. SAAVEDRA
As a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Saavedra received a “medical retirement” after becoming disabled in the field. He currently works as supervisor of the Truth or Consequences Municipal Airport and serves on the Elephant Butte Planning and Zoning Commission. “I’ve still got a lot of life left in me,” Saavedra said.
Asked how he would finance infrastructure improvements, Saavedra said: “Start pushing grants. I don’t always have an answer, but have the community get involved in what we have to do. When people come together, they want to be heard, but we need to come up with a plan. That is 100 percent of why I’m running—having people involved.”
About the top issues he would address, if elected, Saavedra acknowledged: “I don’t know all the issues.” He then listed “irrigation and roads.”
Asked his opinion on the “biggest change” needed, Saavedra said: “There really isn’t too much to change.” Upon reflection, he cited his experiences at the airport to imply that transportation companies are needed. “I have a lot of people fly in from Colorado and the first thing they say is, ‘Where is a rent-a-car place? Do you have Uber? A bus?’” He said he is forced to respond: “I have a truck you can borrow or I can call Whitehead [Chevrolet] and see if they can loan you a car.”
Saavedra would bring the zoning code up to date. “The huge thing is signs and favoritism, which needs to stop 100 percent.”
CATHY LYN HARMON
Elephant Butte City Council appointed Harmon in July to fill City Councilor Gerald La Font’s seat after he resigned mid-term. Employed with Xerox Corporation in Houston for 30 years, Harmon retired in 2012. A native El Pasoan, she built a home in Elephant Butte, which she had been visiting since childhood. “Elephant Butte had potential before it was a city,” she averred, “and now that it is a city it really has potential.”
Harmon explained how she became involved in city government: “I like to do research, and I started reading the ordinances and then serving on the P & Z [planning and zoning commission].”
Asked how she would finance needed infrastructure, Harmon said she has learned from the New Mexico Municipal League online coursework she has taken that “there are a lot of grants out there” for capital improvements.
“What is the biggest change needed?” Harmon was asked. “We need more commercial [development] to keep tourists involved with the city,” she responded. “Bring hotels, something for the tourists to do in the evenings. Most evening activities are in private clubs.”
Top issues she would tackle, if elected, are “drainage and erosion control.” A second top issue is: “We have no code enforcement. Do it equally.”
Asked what zoning changes are needed, Harmon said the code is “extremely confusing,” and should be rewritten “so a person without a law degree can understand it.” She noted: “It’s tough to obey when you can’t understand [the code].”
In her closing statement, Harmon emphasized cooperation. “We need to work together to make this the best place it can be.”
EDNA MARIE TRAGER
Trager, who is currently Elephant Butte mayor, wants to return to city council, the body to which she was appointed in 2015 to fill Sarah Stagner’s seat.
Trager was “born and raised in Albuquerque—South Valley, so it was still somewhat rural, especially back then.” Vowing to return someday to New Mexico, she worked for two radio stations in Los Angeles, creating ad campaigns for large as well as small businesses.
She is currently part-owner of Zia Kayak Outfitters in Elephant Butte, a “family-run business,” she said.
Among the top issues the city should address, Trager said, is a comprehensive update of the city’s codes. “We are taking them up one at a time.” The codes adopted from other cities are sometimes “not reflective of Elephant Butte,” she explained.
A zoning code change Trager admitted might not be popular is an examination of permitted residential storage capacity. “People want storage space. They build huge homes that look like airport hangers with residences inside. It needs to be revisited because it detracts from the residential feeling.”
Asked how she would finance infrastructure improvements, Trager said that the city council “works for months on the ICIP [Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan], prioritizing needs. Sewers are always at the top of list because it will take millions of dollars. The city council always invites the public to participate.”
Diversifying business is the biggest change needed, Trager said. “We walk out our doors and we have the lake, river, trails. We need to bring in different businesses that aren’t so dependent on the weather.”
“I fully believe in being a public servant,” Trager said during her closing statement. I want to improve the quality of life we so enjoy.”
A write-in candidate, Vance said she was told it was impossible to win without her name on the ballot, “but I’m Ms. Impossible.”
Vance has lived in Sierra County for 36 years and has raised two daughters here, who are currently “active in rodeo.” She owned and operated Vance Construction and then Blue Ribbon Carpet Cleaners.
Vance acknowledged that she is “not real familiar” with infrastructure financing. “We need grants,” she offered. “It’s in bad shape. Before we can get businesses, we need a sewer line on main street.”
Asked about the zoning code, Vance said: “It is very unorganized. I talked to several contractors who say it doesn’t conform to state law.”
The top issues the city should address are “infrastructure and drainage,” Vance said. “Our road washes out every time it rains.”
“We need businesses,” Vance continued. “We should look like a resort town. There is not a nice restaurant. All the [business investment] money goes to T or C. We need walkable shops.”
“I know what is needed,” Vance reiterated in her closing statement.
Clarification: According to a later statement made by forum organizer Denise Addie on Facebook on Sierra County NM Square page, the precise number of questions submitted by the public for each jurisdiction were as follows: Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools, 7 questions; Village of Williamsburg, 5 questions; City of Truth or Consequences, 9 questions; and City of Elephant Butte, 5 questions for the mayor candidates and 7 questions for the council candidates. Addie stated: “I . . . was shocked that several candidates ended up picking almost the same type of question. I am sorry for not taking duplicate questions out, but I had told everyone that had submitted a question that it would be in the hat. So, to maintain transparency all the questions were put in the hat.