When the Santa Fe activists who are organizing an overhaul of the town's government discuss Mayor Debbie Jaramillo, they sound like initiates to a self-help group.
"I spent 14 years of my life promoting her. It's grossly sad and disappointing," says activist Don Brayfield.
"I worked with her for six years like a lapdog. I made her palatable for all these institutions," adds Jerilou Hammett. In fact, many in this group of Hispanic and Anglo activists worked feverishly in 1994 to elect Jaramillo. They celebrated her victory as a return of power to the people, believing Jaramillo was a friend of the underdog, someone who promised to fight development and rising taxes in the booming resort town (HCN, 8/8/94). Now, they photocopy fliers and knock on doors to raise support for an August election that would oust her.
During her two years in office, controversy has reigned. The mayor appointed her brother-in-law, a felon, as police chief and her brother, a former political enemy, as city manager. At least a dozen of her appointees have quit or been fired.
What looked like typical political infighting on the surface felt to some much more sinister. More than anything else, her former supporters talk about a betrayal of trust. Jaramillo won on a promise of political participation and empowerment. But the community feels shut out, explains former community liaison for the city, Richard Polese. "She perceives everyone as adversaries or enemies, but she did it herself. She is not a coalition-builder ... All of the councilors and staff members express dismay that they have rare direct communication with her ... Only two people have really close access to her," according to Polese.
The feeling of dissatisfaction didn't turn to action against the mayor until 1996, when Jaramillo's allies hit a brick wall trying to carry out her platform of citizen participation. They had wanted the right to use initiatives and referenda and to recall elected officials, and had petitioned the city to switch to a home-rule government that would grant these rights. But when the council finished the home-rule charter, it no longer contained them. In the wake of California's anti-immigration Proposition 187, some had feared that initiatives could be used to discriminate against Hispanics. Although it failed in the general election last November, Jaramillo had supported the watered-down charter.
In March 1996, the newly formed group PURGE, People United for Responsive Government, launched a petition drive for yet another government change. It was successful: On Aug. 13, Santa Fe voters will decide whether to replace the current mayor-city council government with a commissioner-city manager system that guarantees the rights to initiative, referendum and recall. If they do, the city will have 120 days to redistrict and elect five commissioners who will choose an honorary mayor. No one expects Jaramillo to for commissioner.
The animosity came to a head after four hostile new councilors were elected in March, including Peso Chavez, Jaramillo's rival from her mayoral race. With the balance of power weighted 5-3 against the mayor, the council immediately fired her brother, the city manager. Jaramillo raised the council's ire in June when she authorized the new city manager, David Coss, to send a fleet of surplus vehicles to Santa Fe's sister city in Mexico without obtaining the council's consent. Since then, says activist Brayfield, council meetings have been dominated by insults and insinuations. The joke around town is that Santa Feans gather around their TVs with sodas and chips to watch the Wednesday night meetings the way others watch Monday night football.
The controversy has spawned surprising alliances. Many developers, who once opposed the special election because they didn't want any more chaos in government, now reluctantly side with the activists since the new city manager appointed a director of tourism in June who advocates stemming growth. And Councilor Cris Moore, a Green Party member who has always spoken for community empowerment, now cautions against the change in government because "every time we raise the water rates they could recall the whole council."
Jaramillo dismisses PURGE as "a small group of desperate people who are looking for desperate solutions to a nonexistent problem," according to the Albuquerque Journal North.
Activist José Villegas counters: "She's identifying people like myself and several other community leaders who have been involved in her election. And I'm not desperate and the rest of the community is not desperate ... The council and mayor underestimated the grassroots movement in Santa Fe. And now they're scrambling."
Heather Abel is HCN researcher/reporter