The meeting was difficult to attend. It was broadcast on local radio station KCHS, with reception going in and out. The City agenda did not state how the meeting would be conducted and no announcement was made on the City’s website or Facebook page. Phone calls to the city clerk’s office and Public Information Officer Assistant Chief Erica Baker were not picked up or returned seeking information on how one could attend the meeting.
The meeting began with City Attorney Jay Rubin warning the City Commission his research showed they were violating Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order that no more than five people be in a room.
Rubin attended via telephone and was difficult to understand. He said the information he sought from the New Mexico Municipal League confirmed that governmental meetings were not exempted from the five-person limit.
Rubin said it was decided before the meeting that City Manager Madrid Morris, Mayor Sandra Whitehead, City Clerk Angela Torres and himself –four people—would attend the meeting physically at Commission Chambers, while the four other City Commissioners would attend by phone. Rubin did not explain why or when that original plan changed, but said he was “uncomfortable” attending by phone.
Mayor Whitehead disagreed with Rubin, stating the government is an essential service, and having more than five people at Commission Chambers for the April 22 meeting was not a violation of the Governor’s order. Twenty percent of the Commission Chamber’s capacity could be filled, Whitehead said. The capacity is 100 people, she said, therefore about 20 people could attend meetings.
The Sierra County Sun called the Governor’s office about a month ago, shortly after her order went into effect, and was told the Governor was conducting her governmental meetings with five or fewer people in a room, making it clear she expected other governmental entities to follow suit.
The second order of business was reorganization of the board. Commissioner Paul Baca, who normally says nothing in meetings, immediately made a motion to nominate Whitehead as mayor.
“She has been dealing with the corona virus and State and needs to stay mayor, at least for a couple of months,” Baca said.
New Commissioner Brendan Tolley seconded Baca’s nomination.
While that motion was unresolved on the floor, Whitehead allowed new Commissioner Amanda Forrister to make another motion, nominating Brendan Tolley as mayor. That motion died due to lack of a second.
Whitehead did not call for discussion of Baca’s motion.
The roll-call vote was four yeas in favor of Whitehead being mayor, with Forrister voting nay.
At the end of the meeting Whitehead asked each of the Commissioners if they had anything to report.
New Commissioner Aragon said voting for Whitehead “was a challenging decision.” He said the three new commissioners had met before they were voted in and all agreed constituents had expressed a desire for a “change in legislative leadership.” But because of the virus, Aragon said a change in leadership was a bad idea at this time.
Aragon complimented Forrister for displaying “moral courage” by voting against Whitehead. “She did that based on what she was told by constituents.”
Aragon also suggested that the mayoral position should be decided again “down the road.”
He asked that the two meetings a month be changed to one in the morning and one in the evening, as requested by constituents. He said Madrid would still be conducting his one-on-one conversations with residents, but he wanted the Commission to “be briefed” on those meetings.
Aragon also asked that Madrid give quarterly budget reviews.
Tolley, during his report, also asked that one of the two meetings a month be held in the evening.
In addition, Tolley said he had been contacted several times “by local small business owners suffering financial catastrophe.” He suggested the City “consider joining with the Sierra County Commission in requesting a time table for phasing business openings before we go belly up.”
Forrister, during her report, said, “My vote was based on what constituents had said.”
She agreed with Tolley’s idea that phased openings, as drafted by the New Mexico Business Coalition, should be put on the agenda. She said she had heard from several “business owners and churches of TorC” in favor of reopening.
Whitehead, during her report, said the city should wait until April 30, when the Governor’s order expires, to see what order will be put in effect then. “When we do open it should be a soft opening, taking things slowly and doing things properly. We have an older population.”
City Manager Morris Madrid agreed with Whitehead, stating the Commission should wait to see what the Governor does April 30. If the Commissioners agree with the new guidelines, Madrid said, no special meeting would be necessary. If the Commissioners disagree, a special meeting could be held.